Nkx2-5 marks the earliest recognizable cardiac progenitor cells, and is activated in response to inductive signals involved in lineage specification. Nkx2-5 is also expressed in the developing foregut, thyroid, spleen, stomach and tongue. One approach to elucidate the signals involved in cardiogenesis was to examine the transcriptional regulation of early lineage markers such as Nkx2-5. We generated F0 transgenic mice, which carry Nkx2-5 flanking sequences linked to a lacZ reporter gene. We identified multiple regulatory regions located within the proximal 10.7 kb of the Nkx2-5 gene. In addition to a proximal promoter, we identified a second promoter and a novel upstream exon that could participate in the regulation of Nkx2-5 transcription. Although used rarely in normal development, this novel exon could be spliced into the Nkx2-5 coding region in several ways, thereby potentially creating novel Nkx2-5 protein isoforms, whose transcriptional activity is greatly diminished as compared to wild-type Nkx2-5. An enhancer that directs expression in pharynx, spleen, thyroid and stomach was identified within 3.5 kb of exon 1 between the coding exon 1 and the novel upstream exon 1a. Two or more enhancers upstream of exon 1a were capable of driving expression in the cardiac crescent, throughout the myocardium of the early heart tube, then in the outflow tract and right ventricle of the looped heart tube. A negative element was also located upstream of exon1a, which interacted in complex ways with enhancers to direct correct spatial expression. In addition, potential autoregulatory elements can be cooperatively stimulated by Nkx2-5 and GATA-4. Our results demonstrate that a complex suite of interacting regulatory domains regulate Nkx2-5 transcription. Dissection of these elements should reveal essential features of cardiac induction and positive and negative signaling within the cardiac field.

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