Most, if not all, oxygen-breathing species express the highly-conserved transcriptional complex HIF-1, which is a heterodimer composed of an alpha and a beta subunit, the latter being a constituitively-expressed aryl hydrocarbon receptor nuclear translocator (ARNT). HIF-1 belongs to the PER-ARNT-SIM (PAS) subfamily of the basic-helix-loop-helix (bHLH) family of transcription factors.
The alpha subunit of HIF-1 is a target for prolyl hydroxylation by HIF prolyl-hydroxylase, which makes HIF-1 α a target for degradation by the E3 ubiquitinligase complex, leading to quick degradation by the proteasome. This occurs only in normoxic conditions. In hypoxic conditions, HIF prolyl-hydroxylase is inhibited, since it utilizes oxygen as a cosubstrate.
Hypoxia also results in a buildup of succinate, due to inhibition of the electron transport chain in the mitochondria. The buildup of succinate further inhibits HIF prolyl-hydroxylase action, since it is an end-product of HIF hydoxylation.
In a similar manner, inhibition of electron transfer in the succinate dehydrogenase complex due to mutations in the SDHB or SDHD genes can cause a build-up of succinate that inhibits HIF prolyl-hydroxylase, stabilizing HIF-1 α. This is termed pseudohypoxia.
HIF-1, when stabilized by hypoxic conditions, upregulates several genes to promote survival in low-oxygen conditions. These include glycolysis enzymes, which allow ATP synthesis in an oxygen-independent manner, and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which promotes angiogenesis. HIF-1 acts by binding to HIF-responsive elements (HREs) in promoters that contain the sequence NCGTG.
In general, HIFs are vital to development. In mammals, deletion of the HIF-1 genes results in perinatal death. HIF-1 has been shown to be vital to chondrocyte survival, allowing the cells to adapt to low-oxygen conditions within the growth plates of bones.
Wang GL, Jiang BH, Rue EA, Semenza GL (1995). "Hypoxia-inducible factor 1 is a basic-helix-loop-helix-PAS heterodimer regulated by cellular O2 tension". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A.92 (12): 5510-4. PMID 7539918.