The human oxytocin gene promoter is regulated by estrogens.

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      Gonadal steroids affect brain function primarily by altering the expression of specific genes, yet the specific mechanisms by which neuronal target genes undergo such regulation are unknown. Recent evidence suggests that the expression of the neuropeptide gene for oxytocin (OT) is modulated by estrogens. We therefore examined the possibility that this regulation occurred via a direct interaction of the estrogen-receptor complex with cis-acting elements flanking the OT gene. DNA-mediated gene transfer experiments were performed using Neuro-2a neuroblastoma cells and chimeric plasmids containing portions of the human OT gene 5'-glanking region linked to the chloramphenicol acetyltransferase gene. We identified a 19-base pair region located at -164 to -146 upstream of the transcription start site which is capable of conferring estrogen responsiveness to the homologous as well as to a heterologous promoter. The hormonal response is strictly dependent on the presence of intracellular estrogen receptors, since estrogen induced stimulation occurred only in Neuro-2a cells co-transfected with an expression vector for the human estrogen receptor. The identified region contains a novel imperfect palindrome (GGTGACCTTGACC) with sequence similarity to other estrogen response elements (EREs). To define cis-acting elements that function in synergism with the ERE, sequences 3' to the ERE were deleted, including the CCAAT box, two additional motifs corresponding to the right half of the ERE palindrome (TGACC), as well as a CTGCTAA heptamer similar to the "elegans box" found in Caenorhabditis elegans. Interestingly, optimal function of the identified ERE was fully independent of these elements and only required a short promoter region (-49 to +36). Our studies define a molecular mechanism by which estrogens can directly modulate OT gene expression. However, only a subset of OT neurons are capable of binding estrogens, therefore, direct action of estrogens on the OT gene may be restricted to a subpopulation of OT neurons.

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