In silico and in situ characterization of the zebrafish (Danio rerio) gnrh3 (sGnRH) gene
© Torgersen et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2002
Received: 6 March 2002
Accepted: 21 August 2002
Published: 21 August 2002
Gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) is responsible for stimulation of gonadotropic hormone (GtH) in the hypothalamus-pituitary-gonadal axis (HPG). The regulatory mechanisms responsible for brain specificity make the promoter attractive for in silico analysis and reporter gene studies in zebrafish (Danio rerio).
We have characterized a zebrafish [Trp7, Leu8] or salmon (s) GnRH variant, gnrh 3. The gene includes a 1.6 Kb upstream regulatory region and displays the conserved structure of 4 exons and 3 introns, as seen in other species. An in silico defined enhancer at -976 in the zebrafish promoter, containing adjacent binding sites for Oct-1, CREB and Sp1, was predicted in 2 mammalian and 5 teleost GnRH promoters. Reporter gene studies confirmed the importance of this enhancer for cell specific expression in zebrafish. Interestingly the promoter of human GnRH-I, known as mammalian GnRH (mGnRH), was shown capable of driving cell specific reporter gene expression in transgenic zebrafish.
The characterized zebrafish Gnrh3 decapeptide exhibits complete homology to the Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) GnRH-III variant. In silico analysis of mammalian and teleost GnRH promoters revealed a conserved enhancer possessing binding sites for Oct-1, CREB and Sp1. Transgenic and transient reporter gene expression in zebrafish larvae, confirmed the importance of the in silico defined zebrafish enhancer at -976. The capability of the human GnRH-I promoter of directing cell specific reporter gene expression in zebrafish supports orthology between GnRH-I and GnRH-III.
The gene product of zebrafish gnrh 3 has previously been detected by use of HPLC and RIA , and here we describe the cDNA and gene, including upstream sequence. Since the sGnRH variant is classified as GnRH-III , we propose to name the characterized zebrafish gene gnrh 3 and the product Gnrh3, according to the zebrafish nomenclature convention http://zfin.org/zf_info/nomen.html. Zebrafish genes use lowercase and italics and the gene products are given a first capital letter and the remaining in lower case non-italics. For non-zebrafish genes and proteins we use GnRH-I, -II or -III nomenclature . The upstream region of zebrafish gnrh 3 has been analyzed with a set of bioinformatic tools and we show experimentally that in silico predicted transcription factor (TF) elements are involved in tissue specific expression in the forebrain. We also report tissue specific control of transcription, conserved between zebrafish and man, using the human GnRH-I promoter for driving cell specific expression in transgenic zebrafish.
Zebrafish gnrh3 gene
Zebrafish gnrh3 promoter sequence
Reporter gene expression
The nearly finalized genome project and importance as a model in vertebrate developmental biology, renders increased value for zebrafish as a model in functional genomics. We have chosen the zebrafish gnrh 3 promoter to compare three tools for prediction of transcription factor binding sites and investigate factors involved in tissue specificity of zebrafish gnrh 3. The genomic organization with four exons and three introns, confirms the overall conserved structure of GnRH genes previously characterized [28, 55]. In the analysis for alternative Pol II promoters and TSS in the sequence upstream of exon I, only Neural Network Promoter Prediction recognized promoter elements in the 1.6 kb sequence upstream of the gene and thus confirmed the TSS from our experimental 5' RACE data, although with a discrepancy of 7 nt. Three additional TSS were predicted, of which the high scoring putative Pol II promoter at -1156 would resemble the putative Pa promoter in Atlantic salmon located upstream of exon Ia at -1247, relative to the TSS of the proximal promoter Pb . Since our data are based on mRNA extracted from brain, we have no experimental data on alternative promoter activity in the gonads, as observed with human GnRH-I .
Regarding prediction of regulatory elements involved in tissue specific control of the zebrafish gnrh 3 promoter, a number of bioinformatic tools are available . Briefly they recognize putative binding sites by use of IUPAC consensus (TESS filtered) (Schug J, Overton CG http://www.cbil.upenn.edu/tess/index.html), context (AliBaba 2.1) , or transcription factor binding site matrix information (Matinspector) . Alternatively, Hidden Markov Model (HMM) and other algorithms for pattern recognition may be used. Currently the context-based method seems to be the most specific alternative for TF binding site analysis , as also confirmed by our comparative in silico analysis of the ERE motifs in the salmon GnRH-III Pa promoter . Of importance when predicting TF binding sites is sensitivity and specificity, since too low specificity will bury correct motifs in a wealth of false positives, hindering correct interpretation of the data. Transcriptional response to cellular signals is frequently mediated through co-operation between transcription factors binding to neighboring binding sites. The maximum or minimum distance between two co-operative sites/half sites are of importance, but as bending of DNA may bring two distant TF binding sites into vicinity, we have chosen to look for binding sites with up to 30 bp spacing. Two new bioinformatic tools have been developed to cope with factors interacting over longer distances, CISTER  and FastM , but as their sensitivity and specificity seems inferior to AliBaba, we chose not to use them. Certain TF's may contribute to the basal activity of a promoter being responsible for tissue specificity, whereas others modulate the level of expression. So far most studies investigating GnRH-I or GnRH-II promoter regulation have been conducted in mammalian systems [7, 8, 39–51]. It has been postulated that GnRH-III has replaced the GnRH-I variant as a result of mutations . This also implies that the transcription factors involved should be conserved between the corresponding promoters. The reason why we could not predict binding sites for SF-1, Brn-2, Oct-6 and Otx-2, may be due to lack of SF-1 and Otx-2 matrix information in the TRANSFAC database (db) , used by AliBaba 2.1. A high stringency search for these factors using TESS revealed no consensus among the promoters, with respect to SF-1 and Otx-2. The matrix information for Brn-2 is sufficient in the TRANSFAC db, and the absence of this factor from the AliBaba predictions was judged reliable or false negative. Binding sites for the remaining TF's mentioned also revealed lack of consensus with the exception of CREB. This shows the complexity of GnRH regulation, as many transcription factors have been shown to be involved in tissue specificity and modulation of expression. The findings of CREB motifs in all GnRH promoters analyzed indicate that this factor may be responsible for the tissue specificity, even though we had to decrease the stringency for detection in the rat GnRH-I enhancer, human downstream GnRH-I and African cichlid GnRH-III promoters. Decreased search stringency may lead to false positives, but by including the proximate Oct-1 binding site and searching the upstream Atlantic salmon and human promoters at low stringency, without finding any adjacent CREB and Oct-1 motifs, we believe that the in silico predictions are reliable. Our findings are also supported by observation of altered expression when the human downstream promoter is truncated to -350 , as the putative enhancer is located between -445 and -397. Truncation of the rat enhancer from -1863/-1571 to -1863/-1636 has been shown to reduce expression dramatically  and also destroys the predicted enhancer. Modulation of GnRH expression mediated by Oct-1 has been shown in Gt1 cells, though the motif of importance is located upstream of the putative enhancer . CREB has also been experimentally shown to induce human GnRH-II and to a lesser degree GnRH-I expression, in human neuronal cells . Expression vectors were constructed using information from the TF binding site predictions. Expression from the vectors was confirmed by in vivo transient expression assays and by the formation of stable transgenic zebrafish lines harboring the full-length zebrafish or human GnRH promoters, fused to GFP and RFP respectively. The transgenic lines made it possible to study discrepancies between transgenic and transient expression data with respect to cell specificity between the zebrafish and human GnRH promoter driven reporter genes. The pΔ(A24)-GFP and pΔ(A42)-GFP were unable to express, presumably due to the lack of the Oct-1, CREB and Sp1 motifs between -976 and -929. The second CREB binding site at -878 present in pΔ(A42)-GFP is proposed to be non-functional. Expression from pΔ(A33)-GFP, was as strongly tissue specific as was observed with the full-length promoter, confirming our in silico predictions, since the difference between the pΔ(A33)-GFP and pΔ(A42)-GFP constructs corresponds to the predicted enhancer. From this we conclude that this region featuring the putative Oct-1, CREB and Sp1 sites, is necessary for cell specific expression of the gnrh 3 gene in zebrafish, hence supporting our TF binding site predictions. The pΔ(A25)-GFP construct featuring deletion of the CREB and Sp1 binding sites, was tested for influence upon expression. Forebrain expression was observed, but with a broader cell specificity shown by lack of co-localization with the full-length zebrafish RFP construct, and GFP activity observed in midbrain and hindbrain neuronal cells. This denotes that the Oct-1, CREB and possibly Sp1 are necessary for full cell specificity, because the Oct-1 but not the CREB and Sp1 binding sites were retained in the deletion. Interaction between neighboring Oct-1 and CREB is to our knowledge not known in other promoters. Transgenic (F1) expression of the full-length GFP was observed in a number of cells located in the same area as that of transient expression, but the density of cells made visualizing GFP activity in the axons using fluorescence microscopy difficult. Confocal laser scanning microscopy confirmed the morphological similarities (data not shown), hence the same cell population express transiently and transgenically. Localization of the human driven RFP and zebrafish GFP to the same population of cells as also described for the Atlantic salmon GnRH-III promoter , show that the transcriptional machinery in zebrafish is capable of recognizing a human promoter and directing the tissue specific expression. These results confirm the hypothesis that teleost GnRH-III genes are orthologues of GnRH-I. Cells producing the releasing GnRH form originate from the olfactory placode and migrate to their final positions during brain development [63–68], though we made no attempts to investigate such events. Future experiments applying laser confocal microscopy of developing multi-transgenic zebrafish with alternative GnRH-I and GnRH-III, as well as GnRH receptor and GtH promoter constructs should be conducted to further investigate ontogeny, tissue specificity and regulatory mechanisms of GnRH and other genes involved in the HPG axis.
Cloning of zebrafish gnrh3 RACE products
Poly A selected RNA was isolated from frozen adult zebrafish brains, using an mRNA direct Kit (Dynal, Oslo, Norway). Primer sequences for 5' and 3' RACE reactions were selected from the conserved decapeptide and 5' GAP regions between goldfish (Carassius auratus)  and Atlantic salmon GnRH-III , and the resulting 5' RACE sequences, respectively. All primer-binding sites are shown schematically in fig. 4. Both 5' and 3' RACE reactions were conducted with a Boehringer Manheim 5'/ 3' RACE kit (Roche Diagnostics, Mannheim, Germany), using 1 μg poly A RNA. Primer P1 (5'gcctccasytcmccwacacttctctt3') was used for synthesis of 5' RACE cDNA, and P2 (5'ggwagccraccgtaygaccagtgct3') plus an Oligo d(T)18 anchor primer for the 5' RACE PCR. A -21M13 tailed Oligo d(T)18 primer was applied for 3' RACE cDNA synthesis and a -21M13 anchor primer plus P4 (5'gcatggagtggaaaggaaggtt3') in the 3' RACE PCR. All RACE PCR reactions were carried out with 0.1 μM primers, 1.5 mM MgCl2 and 1 unit of Amplitaq polymerase (Applied Biosystems, Foster City, USA). The PCR cycling parameters were as follows: 1) 1 cycle of 10 min denaturation at 95°C, 2) 35 cycles with 20 sec 95°C denaturation, 30 sec 55°C primer annealing and 40 sec 72°C extension and 3) 7 min extension at 72°C.
Genomic zebrafish DNA was isolated as described in the zebrafish book , with two additional chloroform extractions. PCR amplifications of intron 1 and 3 were performed with 0.1 μM primer P5 (5' tcttgaacaaacacagca3') plus P6 (5'cacaaactaacagcaacaa3') and P7 (5'ctgtctattcctgctgatt3') plus P8 (5'ctcatatcagcttcatcat3'), respectively. The reactions were carried out with Amplitaq Gold (Applied Biosystems), 2.0 mM MgCl2 and 10 ng genomic DNA: 1) 10 min at 95°C, 2) 40 cycles of 60 sec at 94°C, 60 sec at 57,5°C and 90 sec at 72°C and 3) 7 min at 72°C. Intron 2 primary PCR was carried out with 20 ng genomic DNA, 1.5 to 3.5 mM MgCl2, 1.0 unit Hot Star polymerase (Qiagen, Hilden, Germany), and 0.4 μM 5'-biotinylated P92 (5'agcatggagtggaaaggaaggttgctggtccagtt3') and P93 (5'gcaaaccttcagcatccacctcattcacctgtaa3'). PCR conditions: 1) 95°C for 15 min, 2) 40 cycles of 94°C for 20 sec and 90 sec at 72°C and 3) a 10 min 72°C step. The PCR reaction products were pooled and purified with a Dynapure™ Dye Terminator Removal Kit (Dynal). A secondary PCR was conducted with P94 (5'aacacacttacaaattaggctgccaatgtttt3') and P95 (5'gctgttagtttgtgtgttggaggtcagtcttt3'), using purified primary PCR products as template: 1) 95°C for 15 min, 2) 9 cycles of 94°C for 20 sec, annealing / extension touchdown from 72°C to 68°C for 90 sec, 3) 35 cycles of 94°C for 20 sec, and 72°C for 90 sec and 4) 10 min at 72°C. The human GnRH-I promoter was amplified from genomic DNA extracted from a 1 ml blood-sample, using a Wizard genomic purification kit (Promega, Wisconsin, USA). A 1762 bp long promoter fragment , including 97 bp of exon I , was amplified using 0.1 μM of the PCR primers P122 (5'actagtctacccagagataagtgattcacctga3') and P123 (5'accggtctgtgacttttctgttttcctatcttcct3'), 200 ng DNA, 1 × Q-solution and 1.0 unit of Hot Star polymerase: 1) 15 min at 95°C, 2) 35 cycles of 94°C for 15 sec, 55°C for 15 sec, 2 min. at 72°C and 3) 10 min at 72°C.
PCR promoter capture
The zebrafish gnrh 3 promoter was amplified by a PCR promoter capture method (Fig. 3), comprising two PCR reactions. Genomic zebrafish DNA was sheared by sonication and size fractionated in a 10 to 40% stepwise (5% steps) sucrose gradient ultra centrifugation, for 18 hrs at 28.000 rpm. Fractions of DNA were collected from the bottom of the tube, through a pierced opening (23 G needle), and analyzed on 0.8% agarose gel-electrophoresis. Asymmetrical PCR reactions were performed in 50 μl, with 1 unit Hot Star polymerase, 200 μM dNTP, 400 ng 4–10 Kb DNA, 1.5 to 3.0 mM MgCl2 and 20 nM of the biotinylated primer P74 (5'cttgctgacaaaacccacagcaat3'): 1) 15 min at 95°C, 2) 40 cycles of 15 sec at 94°C and 2 min of at 72°C and 3) 10 min at 72 °C. The PCR reaction products were pooled and centrifuged in an Amicon Centricon YM-100 Mw centrifugal filter (Millipore, Bedford, USA), to remove excess of biotinylated primer. The asymmetrical PCR products were coupled to streptavidin coated Dynabeads and purified with Dynapure™ Dye Terminator Removal Kit (Dynal). Equal volume of binding buffer was gently mixed with the pooled PCR products and incubated for 5 min at room temperature. The suspension was washed twice with 150 μl TE pH 8.0, once with 150 μl dH2O and once with 50 μl 1 X Terminal Transferase buffer. The supernatant was discarded and the purified PCR products were poly adenylated in 20 μl 1 X terminal transferase buffer with 0.25 mM fresh dATP and 20 units of terminal transferase (Promega) for 1 hr at 37°C. The poly-adenylated PCR products were washed as described above, using 1 X PCR buffer in the last step. Secondary nested PCR reactions were carried out with 1.5 to 3.0 mM MgCl2 and Hot Star Taq polymerase, using 0.4 μM of the primers P75 (5'gggctcgagagt20b3') and P76 (5'tgaacatttctatcacact3') in 25 μl reactions. The PCR cycling was performed with; 1) 15 min denaturation at 95°C, 2) 40 cycles of 20 sec at 94°C,10 sec at 55°C and 2 min at 72°C, and 3) a 10 min at 72 °C. The PCR fragments were analyzed on 2% agarose gel electrophoresis, excised and purified prior to cloning and sequencing. A 1656 bp promoter fragment was PCR amplified with the primers A25 (5'ggatcccttcagggatgccaggtctt3') and A26 (5'ctcgaggctgtgtttgttcaagatgagttct3'), specific for the sequence obtained from the PCR promoter capture reactions. The PCR reaction was conducted with Hot Star polymerase, 100 ng genomic DNA and 2.0 mM MgCl2. Cycling conditions: 1) 15 min at 95°C, 2) 40 cycles of 15 sec at 94°C,10 sec at 60°C and 2 min at 72°C, and 3) 10 min at 72°C.
All PCR products were cloned using the pGEM T-easy vectors (Promega) and sequenced either with vector or sequence specific primers. All sequencing reactions were carried out in 10 μl reactions with Big Dye Terminator chemistry (Applied Biosystems) and analyzed on an ABI 377 automated sequencer (Applied Biosystems). The zebrafish gnrh 3 cDNA and gene have Gene Bank accession number AJ304429 and AF490354.
Contig assembly of the zebrafish sequences was conducted with Contig Express (Informax, Bethesda, USA) and the ORF was translated and analyzed using BLAST , with BLOSUM 62. The zebrafish gnrh 3 promoter sequence was analyzed for presence of repeat regions and transposable elements, using Repeat Masker (Smit AFA, Green P http://repeatmasker.genome.washington.edu/cgi-bin/RepeatMasker). Confirmation of Pol II promoter and recognition of the transcriptional start site was conducted with Promoter Scan II  and Neural Network Promoter Prediction (Reese MG, Harris NL, Eeckam FH http://www.fruitfly.org/seq_tools/promoter.html). In silico analysis for transcription factor-binding sites was initiated with a search for TF's present in brain and neuronal cells, using TESS filtered search (Schug J, Overton CG http://www.cbil.upenn.edu/tess/index.html). Secondly, a binding site analysis was conducted to find binding sites common to and missing from brain and gonad specific promoters respectively. To increase the reliability of these predictions, TESS filtered search, AliBaba 2.1  and Matinspector professional  were compared and stringency optimized for correct prediction of the ERE described in the salmon Pa GnRH-III promoter . In addition to the zebrafish gnrh 3 promoter, the Atlantic salmon GnRH-III Pa and Pb , human GnRH-I upstream (II)  and downstream (I) , striped bass GnRH-I , rat GnRH-I , and African cichlid GnRH-I and GnRH-III  promoters were analyzed for TF binding sites.
Reporter gene constructs and microinjection
The zebrafish (-1656 to +16) and human (-1762 to +97) GnRH promoter fragments were cloned into pGEM T-easy vectors prior to endonuclease digestion with Bam HI/ Xho I and Spe I / Age I, respectively. The promoter fragments were ligated into promoter-less hrGFP (Stratagene, La Jolla, USA) and non-humanized pDsRed (Clontech, Palo Alto, USA) vectors, respectively. A full-length RFP version of the zebrafish construct was also made. A total of 4 zebrafish GnRH promoter deletion constructs were created, using information from the TF binding site predictions. All PCR fragments for the promoter deletion constructs were fused to an hrGFP vector and named according to the sense primer used (Fig. 4b). Briefly, the PCR reactions were run with the primers listed in figure 4b legend, Hot Star polymerase and 2 mM MgCl2. The cycling conditions were as follows; 1) 95°C for 15 min, 2) 3 cycles of 94°C for 15 sec, 54°C for 15 sec and 72°C for 30 sec, 3) 36 cycles of 94°C for 15 sec, 64°C for 15 sec and 72°C for 30 sec, and 4) 5 min at 72°C. All PCR products were ligated into pGEM T-easy vectors and digested with their corresponding restriction endonucleases (Fig. 4b), before fusion with the hrGFP vector backbone. The pΔ(A25)-GFP vector was created by fusing two PCR products, creating a 91 bp deletion within the full-length promoter (Fig. 4b). Transgenic zebrafish were created by microinjection of 106 copies of full-length zebrafish and human constructs into embryos at the one or two cells stage . Transient and transgenic reporter gene expression was monitored with respect to onset and cell specificity of expression, from 24 hrs to 10 days post fertilization, using an Olympus BX 60 microscope (Olympus, Tokyo, Japan) equipped with NIBA and WG filter sets (Olympus). Fluorescence image capture and image processing was conducted with a Colourview-12 digital camera and Analysis Auto 3.1 software (Soft Imaging System, Münster, Germany).
We are grateful to Dr. Philippe Collas for fruitful scientific discussions, Mei-Rong Liang, Amilcar Arenal, Qirong Huang and Ingvild Berg are thanked for skillful technical assistance. Part of the work was funded through EU Grant BIO4-CT97-0554, EU Biotechnology Program, Project Assessment of biological containment and gene flow in transgenically sterile fish. J. Torgersen had Ph.D. scholarship funded through NRC Grant NRC 121107/112, NRC Biotechnology Program, Project: MHC promoters for directing expression of antigens to be presented to the immune system of fish.
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