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Event Title

AHR, Activation
Short name: AHR, Activation

Key Event Overview

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AOPs Including This Key Event

AOP Name Event Type Essentiality
AhR activation leading to embryo toxicity in fish MIE
AhR activation leading to hepatic steatosis MIE Strong
AhR activation leading to uroporphyria MIE Strong
Aryl hydrocarbon receptor activation leading to embryolethality via cardiotoxicty MIE Strong

Chemical Initiators

The following are chemical initiators that operate directly through this Event:

  1. Benzidine
  2. Dibenzo-p-dioxin
  3. Polychlorinated biphenyl
  4. Polychlorinated dibenzofurans
  5. Hexachlorobenzene

Taxonomic Applicability

Name Scientific Name Evidence Links

Level of Biological Organization

Biological Organization

How this Key Event works

The AHR Receptor

The aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) is a ligand-activated transcription factor that belongs to the basic helix-loop-helix Per-ARNT-Sim (bHLH-PAS) superfamily and consists of three domains: the DNA-binding domain (DBD), ligand binding domain (LBD) and transactivation domain (TAD)[1]. Other members of this superfamily include the AHR nuclear translocator (ARNT), which acts as a dimerization partner of the AHR [2][3]; Per, a circadian transcription factor; and Sim, the “single-minded” protein involved in neuronal development [4][5]. This group of proteins shares a highly conserved PAS domain and is involved in the detection of and adaptation to environmental change[4].

The molecular Initiating Event

The molecular mechanism of activation of gene expression by AHR1.

The molecular mechanism for AHR-mediated activation of gene expression is presented in the figure to the right. In its unliganded form, the AHR is part of a cytosolic complex containing heat shock protein 90 (HSP90), the HSP90 co-chaperone p23 and AHR-interacting protein (AIP)[6]. Upon ligand binding, the AHR migrates to the nucleus where it dissociates from the cytosolic complex and forms a heterodimer with ARNT[7]. The AHR-ARNT complex then binds to a xenobiotic response element (XRE) found in the promoter of an AHR-regulated gene and recruits co-regulators such as CREB binding protein/p300, steroid receptor co-activator (SRC) 1, SRC-2, SRC-3 and nuclear receptor interacting protein 1, leading to induction or repression of gene expression[6]. Expression levels of several genes, including phase I (e.g. cytochrome P450 (CYP) 1A, CYP1B, CYP2A) and phase II enzymes (e.g. uridine diphosphate glucuronosyl transferase (UDP-GT), glutathione S-transferases (GSTs)), as well as genes involved in cell proliferation (transforming growth factor-beta, interleukin-1 beta), cell cycle regulation (p27, jun-B) and apoptosis (Bax), are regulated through this mechanism [6][8][7][9].

AHR Isoforms

Two AHR isoforms (AHR1 and AHR2) have been identified in the black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes), great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) and domestic chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus)[10]. AHR1 mRNA levels were similar in the kidney, heart, lung, spleen, brain, gonad and intestine from the great cormorant but were lower in muscle and pancreas. AHR2 expression was mainly observed in the liver, but was also detected in gonad, brain and intestine. AHR1 levels represented a greater proportion (80%) of total AHR levels than AHR2 in the cormorant liver[10], and while both AHR isoforms bound to TCDD, AHR2 was less effective at inducing TCDD-dependent transactivation compared to AHR1 in black-footed albatross, great cormorant and domestic chicken[11][10].

How it is Measured or Detected

Methods that have been previously reviewed and approved by a recognized authority should be included in the Overview section above. All other methods, including those well established in the published literature, should be described here. Consider the following criteria when describing each method: 1. Is the assay fit for purpose? 2. Is the assay directly or indirectly (i.e. a surrogate) related to a key event relevant to the final adverse effect in question? 3. Is the assay repeatable? 4. Is the assay reproducible?

Transactivation Reporter Gene Assays (recommended approach)

Transient transfection transactivation

Transient transfection transactivation is the most common method for evaluating nuclear receptor activation[12]. Full-length AHR cDNAs are cloned into an expression vector along with a luminescent reporter gene construct (chimeric luciferase, P-lactamase or CAT reporter vectors containing the appropriate response elements for the gene of interest). There are a number of commercially available cell lines that can serve as recipients for these vectors (CV-1, HuH7, FLC-7, LS174T, LS180 MCF-7, HEC1, LLC-PK1, HEK293, HepG2, and Caco-2 cells)[12]. The greatest advantage of using transfected cells, rather than primary cell cultures, is the assurance that the nuclear receptor of interest is responsible for the observed induction. This would not be possible in a primary cell culture due to the co-regulation of different receptors for the same target genes. This model makes it easy to compare the responsiveness of the AHR across multiple species under the same conditions simply by switching out the AHR clone. One disadvantage to the transient transfection assay is the inherent variability associated with transfection efficiency, leading to a movement towards the use of stable cell lines containing the nuclear receptor and reporter gene linked to the appropriate response elements[12].

Luciferase reporter gene (LRG) assay

For demonstrative purposes, a luciferase reporter gene assay used to measure AHR1-mediated transactivation for avian species is described here. A monkey kidney cell line (Cos-7) that has low endogenous AHR1 expression was transfected with the appropriate avian AHR1 clone, cormorant ARNT1, a CYP1A5 firefly luciferase reporter construct and a Renilla luciferase vector to control for transfection efficiency. After seeding, the cells were exposed to DLC and luciferase activity was measured using a luminometer. Luminescence, which is proportional to the extent of AHR activation, is expressed as the ratio of firefly luciferase units to Renilla luciferase units [13]. This particular assay was modified from its original version to increase throughput efficiency; (a) cells were seeded in 96-well plates rather than Petri dishes or 48- well plates, (b) DLCs were added directly to the wells without changing the cell culture medium, and (c) the same 96-well plates were used to measure luminescence without lysing the cells and transferring to another plate. Similar reporter gene assays have been used to measure AHR1 activation in domestic and wild species of birds, including the chicken, ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica), great cormorant, black-footed albatross and peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus).[14][13][15][11][16][17]

Transactivation in stable cell lines

Stable cell lines have been developed and purified to the extent that each cell contains both the nuclear receptor and appropriate reporter vector, eliminating the variability associated with transfection [12]. A stable human cell line containing a luciferase reporter driven by multiple dioxin response elements has been developed that is useful in identifying AhR agonists and antagonists[18]. An added benefit of this model is the potential to multiplex 3 assays in a single well: receptor activation, cell viability and enzyme activity[12]. Such assays are used extensively in drug discovery due to their high throughput efficiency, and may serve just as useful for risk assessment purposes.

Ligand-Binding Assays

Ligand binding assays measure the ability of a test compound to compete with a labeled, high-affinity reference ligand for the LBD of a nuclear receptor. It is important to note that ligand binding does not necessitate receptor activation and therefore cannot distinguish between agonists and antagonists; however, binding affinities of AHR ligands are highly correlated with chemical potencies[19] and can explain differences in species sensitivities to DLCs[20][21][22]; they are therefore worth mentioning. Binding affinity and efficacy have been used to develop structure-activity relationships for AHR disruption[20][23] that are potentially useful in risk-assessment. There has been tremendous progress in the development of ligand-binding assays for nuclear receptors that use homogenous assay formats (no wash steps) allowing for the detection of low-affinity ligands, many of which do not require a radiolabel and are amenable to high throughput screening[24][12]. This author however was unable to find specific examples of such assays in the context of AHR binding and therefore some classic radioligand assays are described instead.

Hydroxyapatite (HAP) binding assay

The HAP binding assay makes use of an in vitro transcription/translation method to synthesize the AHR protein, which is then incubated with radiolabeled TDCPP and a HAP pellet. The occupied protein adsorbs to the HAP and the radioactivity is measured to determine saturation binding. An additional ligand can also be included in the mixture in order to determine its binding affinity relative to TCDD (competitive binding)[25][22]. This assay is simple, repeatable and reproducible; however, it is insensitive to weak ligand-receptor interactions[22][21][26].

Whole cell filtration binding assay

Dold and Greenlee[27] developed a method to detect specific binding of TCDD to whole mammalian cells in culture and was later modified by Farmahin et al.[21] for avian species. The cultured cells are incubated with radiolabeled TCDD with or without the presence of a competing ligand and filtered. The occupied protein adsorbs onto the filter and the radioactivity is measured to determine saturation binging and/or competitive binding. This assay is able to detect weak ligand-receptor interactions that are below the detection limit of the HAP assay[21].

Protein-DNA Interaction Assays

The active AHR complexed with ARNT can be measured using protein-DNA interaction assays. Two methods are described in detail by Perez-Romero and Imperiale[28]. Chromatin immunoprecipitation measures the interaction of proteins with specific genomic regions in vivo. It involves the treatment of cells with formaldehyde to crosslink neighboring protein-protein and protein-DNA molecules. Nuclear fractions are isolated, the genomic DNA is sheared, and nuclear lysates are used in immunoprecipitations with an antibody against the protein of interest. After reversal of the crosslinking, the associated DNA fragments are sequenced. Enrichment of specific DNA sequences represents regions on the genome that the protein of interest is associated with in vivo. Electrophoretic mobility shift assay (EMSA) provides a rapid method to study DNA-binding protein interactions in vitro. This relies on the fact that complexes of protein and DNA migrate through a nondenaturing polyacrylamide gel more slowly than free DNA fragments. The protein-DNA complex components are then identified with appropriate antibodies. The EMSA assay was found to be consistent with the LRG assay in chicken hepatoma cells dosed with dioxin-like compounds[29].

Evidence Supporting Taxonomic Applicability

The AHR structure has been shown to contribute to differences in species sensitivity to DLCs in several animal models. In 1976, a 10-fold difference was reported between two strains of mice (non-responsive DBA/2 mouse, and responsive C57BL/6 14 mouse) in CYP1A induction, lethality and teratogenicity following TCDD exposure[3]. This difference in dioxin sensitivity was later attributed to a single nucleotide polymorphism at position 375 (the equivalent position of amino acid residue 380 in chicken) in the AHR LBD[30][19][31]. Several other studies reported the importance of this amino acid in birds and mammals[32][30][22][33][34][35][31][36]. It has also been shown that the amino acid at position 319 (equivalent to 324 in chicken) plays an important role in ligand-binding affinity to the AHR and transactivation ability of the AHR, due to its involvement in LBD cavity volume and its steric effect[35]. Mutation at position 319 in the mouse eliminated AHR DNA binding[35].

The first study that attempted to elucidate the role of avian AHR1 domains and key amino acids within avian AHR1 in avian differential sensitivity was performed by Karchner et al.[22]. Using chimeric AHR1 constructs combining three AHR1 domains (DBD, LBD and TAD) from the chicken (highly sensitive to DLC toxicity) and common tern (resistant to DLC toxicity), Karchner and colleagues[22], showed that amino acid differences within the LBD were responsible for differences in TCDD sensitivity between the chicken and common tern. More specifically, the amino acid residues found at positions 324 and 380 in the AHR1 LBD were associated with differences in TCDD binding affinity and transactivation between the chicken (Ile324_Ser380) and common tern (Val324_Ala380) receptors[22]. Since the Karchner et al. (2006) study was conducted, the predicted AHR1 LBD amino acid sequences were been obtained for over 85 species of birds and 6 amino acid residues differed among species[14][37] . However, only the amino acids at positions 324 and 380 in the AHR1 LBD were associated with differences in DLC toxicity in ovo and AHR1-mediated gene expression in vitro[14][37][16]. These results indicate that avian species can be divided into one of three AHR1 types based on the amino acids found at positions 324 and 380 of the AHR1 LBD: type 1 (Ile324_Ser380), type 2 (Ile324_Ala380) and type 3 (Val324_Ala380)[14][37][16].

Evidence for Chemical Initiation of this Molecular Initiating Event

The AHR can be activated by several structurally diverse chemicals, but binds preferentially to planar halogenated aromatic hydrocarbons and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Dioxin-like compounds (DLCs), which include polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs), polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs) and certain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), are among the most potent AHR ligands[38]. Only a subset of PCDD, PCDF and PCB congeners has been shown to bind to the AHR and cause toxic effects to those elicited by TCDD. Until recently, TCDD was considered to be the most potent DLC in birds[39]; however, recent reports indicate that 2,3,4,7,8-pentachlorodibenzofuran (PeCDF) is more potent than TCDD in some species of birds.[40][13][41][21][42][43] When screened for their ability to induce aryl hydrocarbon hydroxylase (AHH) activity, dioxins with chlorine atoms at a minimum of three out of the four lateral ring positions, and with at least one non-chlorinated ring position are the most active[44]. Of the dioxin-like PCBs, non-ortho congeners are the most toxicologically active, while mono-ortho PCBs are generally less potent[45][9]. Chlorine substitution at ortho positions increases the energetic costs of assuming the coplanar conformation required for binding to the AHR [45]. Thus, a smaller proportion of mono-ortho PCB molecules are able to bind to the AHR and elicit toxic effects, resulting in reduced potency of these congeners. Other PCB congeners, such as di-ortho substituted PCBs, are very weak AHR agonists and do not likely contribute to dioxin-like effects [9].

The role of the AHR in mediating the toxic effects of planar hydrophobic contaminants has been well studied, however the endogenous role of the AHR is less clear [1]. Some endogenous and natural substances, including prostaglandin PGG2 and the tryptophan derivatives indole-3-carbinol, 6-formylindolo[3,2-b]carbazole (FICZ) and kynurenic acid can bind to and activate the AHR. [6][46][47][48][49] The AHR is thought to have important endogenous roles in reproduction, liver and heart development, cardiovascular function, immune function and cell cycle regulation [50][38][51][52][53][54][46][55][56][57] and activation of the AHR by DLCs may therefore adversely affect these processes.


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