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The mammalian family of basic helix-loop-helix-PER-ARNT-SIM (bHLH-PAS) transcription factors possess the ability to sense and respond to diverse environmental and physiological cues. These proteins all share a common structural framework, comprising a bHLH domain, two PAS domains, and transcriptional activation or repression domain. To function effectively as transcription factors, members of the family must form dimers, bringing together bHLH segments to create a functional unit that allows for DNA response element binding. The significance of bHLH-PAS family is underscored by their involvement in many major human diseases, offering potential avenues for therapeutic intervention. Notably, the clear identification of ligand-binding cavities within their PAS domains enables the development of targeted small molecules. Two examples are Belzutifan, targeting hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF)-2α, and Tapinarof, targeting the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR), both of which have gained regulatory approval recently. Here, we focus on the HIF subfamily. The crystal structures of all three HIF-α proteins have been elucidated, revealing their bHLH and tandem PAS domains are used to engage their dimerization partner aryl hydrocarbon receptor nuclear translocator (ARNT, also called HIF-1β). A broad range of recent findings point to a shared allosteric modulation mechanism among these proteins, whereby small-molecules at the PAS-B domains exert direct influence over the HIF-α transcriptional functions. As our understanding of the architectural and allosteric mechanisms of bHLH-PAS proteins continues to advance, the possibility of discovering new therapeutic drugs becomes increasingly promising.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of molecular biology

Publication Date



Marine College, Shandong University, Weihai 264209, China; Helmholtz International Lab, State Key Laboratory of Microbial Technology, Shandong University, Qingdao 266237, China.