Animal Science Department


Date of this Version

January 1997


Published in Endocrinology 138: 667–675, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by The Endocrine Society. Used by permission.


Sertoli cells are critical for testicular function and maintenance of the spermatogenic process. The induction of Sertoli cell differentiation in the embryo promotes testicular development and male sex determination. The progression of Sertoli cell differentiation during puberty promotes the onset of spermatogenesis. The maintenance of optimal Sertoli cell differentiation in the adult is required for spermatogenesis to proceed. The current study was designed to investigate the transcriptional regulation of Sertoli cell differentiation through the analysis of a previously identified marker of differentiation, transferrin gene expression. Sertoli cells produce transferrin to transport iron to developing spermatogenic cells sequestered within the blood-testis barrier.

The transferrin promoter was characterized and found to contain two critical response elements, designated Sertoli element 1 (SE1) and Sertoli element 2 (SE2). Through sequence analysis, SE2 was found to contain an E-box response element, which has been shown to respond to basic-helix-loop-helix (bHLH) transcription factors. The bHLH proteins are a class of transcription factors associated with the induction and progression of cell differentiation. bHLH proteins dimerize through the conserved helix-loop-helix region and bind DNA through the basic region. Nuclear extracts from Sertoli cells were found to cause an E-box gel shift when the cells were stimulated to differentiate in culture, but not under basal conditions. The SE2 gel shift of Sertoli nuclear extracts was competed with excess unlabeled SE2 or E-box DNA fragments. Several Sertoli nuclear proteins associate with the SE2 gel shifts, including 70-, 42-, and 25-kDa proteins. Therefore, the critical SE2 element in the transferrin promoter is an E-box element capable of binding bHLH transcription factors. The ubiquitously expressed E12 bHLH protein dimerizes with numerous cell-specific bHLH factors. A Western blot analysis demonstrated that E12 was present in Sertoli cell nuclear extracts and associated with the SE2 gel shift. A ligand blot of Sertoli cell nuclear extracts with radio-labeled E12 had apparent bHLH proteins when the cells were stimulated to differentiate. The E-box sequence in the SE2 fragment of the transferrin promoter was CATCTG and was similar in gel shifts to the consensus E-box elements (CANNTG) previously characterized. A bHLH inhibitory factor (Id) competed and inhibited formation of the Sertoli cell nuclear extract E-box gel shift. To extend this observation, Id protein was over-expressed in cultured Sertoli cells. A transferrin promoter chloramphenicol acetyltransferase construct was used to monitor Sertoli cell function. The presence of Id suppressed the activation of the promoter induced by Sertoli differentiation factors. Therefore, the inhibition of Sertoli bHLH factors by Id suppressed Sertoli cell differentiated function, as measured by transferrin expression. An E-box-chloramphenicol acetyltransferase construct was also found to be active in Sertoli cells when cells were induced to differentiate. Screening the computerized nucleotide data bases demonstrated that putative E-box response elements are present in the promoters of a large number of Sertoli cell differentiated genes.

In summary, a critical E-box response element has been identified in the transferrin promoter that can be activated by bHLHfactors (e.g. E12) present in Sertoli cells. Inhibition of Sertoli bHLH factors by Id suppresses Sertoli cell differentiated function (i.e. transferrin expression), suggesting that bHLH transcription factors may be important in regulating Sertoli cell differentiated functions.