Oxygen is essential to the life of all aerobic organisms. Virtually every cell type is able to sense a limited oxygen supply (hypoxia) and specifically to induce a set of oxygen-regulated genes. This review summarizes current concepts of mammalian oxygen-sensing and signal-transduction pathways. Since the discovery of the hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs), a great deal of progress has been made in our comprehension of how hypoxia induces the expression of oxygen-regulated genes. The alpha subunit of the heterodimeric transcription factors HIF-1, 2 and 3 is unstable under normoxia but is rapidly stabilized upon exposure to hypoxic conditions. Following heterodimerization with the constitutively expressed beta subunit, HIFs activate the transcription of an increasing number of genes involved in maintaining oxygen homeostasis at the cellular, local and systemic levels.

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