Cells in a low oxygen, or hypoxic, microenvironment must have the ability to sense oxygen levels in the nucleus in order to maintain oxygen homeostasis by gene regulation. Hypoxia inducible factor-1 (HIF-1) serves as a molecular bridge between the sensation and utilization of oxygen, and thus functions as a key player in oxygen homeostasis. HIF-1 is a heterodimeric transcription factor and is composed of two subunits, the oxygen-sensitive HIF-1α and constitutively expressed HIF-1β. HIF-1 regulates the expression of a broad range of genes that facilitate acclimation to low oxygen conditions by changes in protein levels in circulation, metabolism, and proliferation. Appropriate temporal and spatial activation of HIF-1 is crucial not only in developmental and physiological processes, characterized by programmed cellular proliferation, but also in pathophysiological conditions such as tumorigenesis, which exhibit unregulated cellular proliferation. However, many contradictory reports as to the role of HIF-1 in the regulation of cellular proliferation have been put forward in recent years. In this review, our first aim is to summarize the current knowledge of oxygen-dependent HIF-1 activation mechanisms based on its structure. Then we will describe the proposed mechanisms through which HIF-1 regulates cellular proliferation of different cell types, including tumor cells as well as non-transformed, nonimmortalized cells under normoxic and hypoxic conditions.
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