Expression of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I genes exhibits unique tissue and developmental specificity. In an effort to study molecular mechanisms of MHC class I gene regulation, an in vitro transcription system has been established. In B cell nuclear extracts a template DNA containing the mouse H-2Ld promoter sequence accurately directed RNA polymerase II-dependent transcription of a G-free cassette. A conserved class I regulatory complex previously shown to moderately enhance promoter activity in vivo enhanced transcription in vitro by 2-3 fold. Much of this enhancement was accounted for by a 40 bp fragment within the complex, which was capable of activating a basal H-2Ld promoter in either orientation. Farther downstream, another element called site B was identified, which independently activated MHC class I transcription in vitro by 2-4 fold. Site B bound a specific nuclear factor(s) through an NF-1 binding site but not through a neighboring CCAAT site. The functional significance of site B in vivo was demonstrated in transfection experiments in which site B enhanced MHC class I promoter activity to a degree comparable to that seen in vitro. With the identification of the two upstream activators, MHC class I genes may serve as a model to study roles of sequence-specific DNA-binding proteins in transcription in vitro.
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