Adrenal 4 binding protein/steroidogenic factor 1 (Ad4BP/SF-1) (Nr5a1) is a nuclear receptor essential for reproductive tissue development and endocrine regulation. This factor is expressed in steroidogenic tissues (e.g. adrenal glands and gonads), and expression of this factor is tightly regulated in a tissue and cell type-specific manner. Our previous studies have identified tissue and cell type-specific enhancers in the introns of the Ad4BP/SF-1 gene in fetal adrenal glands, ventromedial hypothalamus, and pituitary gonadotrope. Characterization of the enhancers had provided new insights into tissue and cell development. However, these studies have failed to identify any gonad-specific enhancer. Here, we identified a fetal Leydig cell-specific enhancer in the upstream region of the mouse Ad4BP/SF-1 gene using transgenic mouse assays. Alignment of the upstream regions among vertebrate animal species demonstrated that the enhancer consisted of three conserved regions, whereby the most highly conserved region contained an Ad4BP/SF-1 binding sequence and an E-box. Mutation of each sequence abolished the enhancer activity and led to a loss of reporter gene expression. These results suggested that Ad4BP/SF-1 gene expression in the fetal Leydig cell is regulated by a yet unidentified E-box binding protein(s) and by an autoregulatory loop formed by Ad4BP/SF-1. Although fetal Leydig cells have been thought to play crucial roles for masculinization of various fetal tissues through androgen production, other functions have remained elusive. Our identification of a fetal Leydig cell-specific enhancer in the Ad4BP/SF-1 gene would be a powerful tool to address these gaps in the knowledge base.
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