Pulmonary surfactant is a lipid-protein complex that is synthesized by type II epithelial cells in the alveoli. Surfactant is stored in intracellular organelles known as lamellar bodies and is secreted into airspace by exocytosis. Surfactant lipids form monolayer and multilayer that line the alveolar surface, reducing surface tension created at the air-liquid interface. Pulmonary surfactant is essential for the proper inflation and function of the lung [1
]. Surfactant deficiency is associated with premature birth, lung infection or injury. Mutations in genes critical for surfactant production or function can cause lung atelectasis and respiratory failure [2
]. Surfactant homeostasis is maintained by a balance among multi-tiered processes, including the synthesis assembly, trafficking, storage, secretion recycling and degradation of surfactant proteins and lipids. While the structures and functions of pulmonary surfactant proteins and lipids have been extensively studied, little is known regarding the genetic and cellular mechanisms integrating the complex processes controlling surfactant lipid homeostasis.
Transcriptional regulation of lipogenesis has been extensively studied in the liver and adipocytes. A number of TFs have been identified controlling the expression of lipogenic enzymes and genes in the lipogenic pathways including Sterol Regulatory Element Binding Protein (SREBP) isoforms, CCAAT-enhancer binding protein (C/EBP) isoforms, nuclear hormone receptors (NR1H2 and NR1H3) and peroxisome proliferator activated receptors (PPAR) [3
]. SREBP has two genes (Srebf1 and 2) encoding for three protein isoforms, SREBP-1a, SREBP-1c and SREBP-2. SREBPs are synthesized as inactive precursors and activated by proteolysis in the Golgi apparatus. SREBP-2 primarily activates cholesterol biosynthetic genes whereas SREBP-1c predominantly activates genes involved in fatty acid production [4
]. The C/EBPs belong to the basic-leucine zipper class of TFs. Six isoforms have been identified; all of which act as homo-or heterodimers via highly conserved bZIP domain [8
]. The involvement of C/EBPs in lipogenesis is strongly supported by both in vitro
and in vivo
data. In adipocytes, C/EBPα, SREBP-1c and PPARγ induce fatty acid biosynthesis, but only C/EBPα is essential [9
Lung maturation is highly dependent on the differentiation and function of the respiratory epithelium that, in turn, produces pulmonary surfactant lipids and proteins. Studies from the conditional deletion or mutation of specific genes have lead to the identification of several TFs in lung epithelium that are crucial to lung maturation and respiratory adaptation, include TTF-1, FOXA2 and C/EBPα. TTF-1 binds to the promoters of lung specific genes such as Sftpa, Sftpb, Sftpc, Sftpd
and increases their expression [10
]. The deletion of Foxa2
from lung epithelial cells resulted in the lack of surfactant lipids and proteins, lack of appropriate differentiation of type I and II cells and absence of lamellar body formation, indicating delayed peripheral lung maturation [12
]. Comparative microarray analysis show that although these TFs bind to distinct cis-elements in the promoter region of target genes, they are able to influence the expression of many common targets involved in surfactant proteins and lipid biosynthesis (e.g, Abca3, Scd1, Pon1, Sftpa, Sftpb, Sftpc
), fluid and solute transport (e.g., Aqp5, Scnn1g, Slc34a2
) and innate host defense (e.g., Lys, Sftpa, Sftpd and Scgb1a1
), suggesting that Foxa2, CEBPα
may share common transcription network regulating perinatal lung maturation and postnatal adaptation [12
]. The majority of information regarding the role of SREBP has been focused to cholesterol and fatty acid metabolism in tissues such as liver and adipose [4
]. SREBP-1c is expressed in the developing lung, where its expression increases during late gestation, concomitantly with the perinatal increases in surfactant lipid synthesis and the induction of genes critical for surfactant function [18
]. SREBP activates CTP:phosphocholine cytidylyltransferase, the rate-limiting enzyme for phosphatidylcholine synthesis and increases surfactant phosphatidylcholine synthesis in the mouse lung [20
]. These data strongly support the notion that in lung, SREBP may play an important role in surfactant and phospholipid homeostasis.
A fundamental challenge in the "post genomic era" is to decode transcriptional networks that direct intricate patterns of gene expression in complex organisms. In the lung, how TFs interact with each other and signaling molecules to regulate groups of gene targets mediating distinct but integrated aspects of cell or organ function, and how lipid homeostasis is integrated with maturation of type II epithelial cells remain unclear. It is highly likely that surfactant lipid homeostasis is controlled by complex interactions among transcriptional networks that integrate distinct but interrelated aspects of alveolar cell biology, e.g., lung maturation, host defense and surfactant function. Several strategies have been devised to decipher regulatory components and networks, each is partially successful and none is without limitations. Microarray analysis reveals mRNAs that change significantly in expression, but fails to assign these changes to biological events. The GO annotation and literature mining enable the association of genes with biological processes and pathways, but are limited to current knowledge. TF-TG correlation takes into account that expression profiles of TFs and their targets are often correlated and genes with highly correlated profiles are likely to be regulated by the same TF(s). In some instances, however, TFs regulate their targets, not by changing their own expression, but by post-transcriptional mechanisms such as transcript stability, binding site accessibility, interaction with tissue-specific co-factors or chromatin structures [23
]. Promoter analysis seeking conserved or common TFBSs in promoters of co-expressed genes can identify the potential cis-elements, but may not inherently identify the binding TF or its role in transcription; moreover, this analysis is often associated with high numbers of false positive predictions due to the short and degenerate nature of many TFBS motifs. In the present study, we sought biological consistency and comprehensiveness by using a systems approach to integrate analytic results from independent and complementary resources, including gene expression profiling, protein interaction, functional annotation, promoter and literature mining, to develop a map of genetic networks regulating lung lipogenesis and surfactant homeostasis that are critical for lung function, focusing on the roles of key TFs in the network.