Mechanism of Biological Action
Retinoic acid acts by binding to the retinoic acid receptor (RAR), which is bound to DNA as a heterodimer with the retinoid X receptor (RXR) in regions called retinoic acid response elements (RAREs). Binding of the retinoic acid ligand to RAR alters the conformation of the RAR, which affects the binding of other proteins that either induce or repress transcription of a nearby gene (including Hox genes and several other target genes). Retinoic acid receptors mediate transcription of different sets of genes controlling differentiation of a variety of cell types, thus the target genes regulated depend upon the target cells. In some cells, one of the target genes is the gene for the retinoic acid receptor itself (RAR-beta in mammals), which amplifies the response. Control of retinoic acid levels is maintained by a suite of proteins that control synthesis and degradation of retinoic acid.
The molecular basis for the interaction between retinoic acid and the Hox genes has been studied by using deletion analysis in transgenic mice carrying constructs of lacZ reporter genes. Such studies have identified functional RAREs within flanking sequences of some of the most 3' Hox genes (including Hoxa1, Hoxb1, Hoxb4, Hoxd4), suggesting a direct interaction between the genes and retinoic acid. These types of studies strongly support the normal roles of retinoids in patterning vertebrate embryogenesis through the Hox genes.
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