Locus control regions (LCRs) are cis-acting DNA segments needed for activation of an entire locus or gene cluster. They are operationally defined as DNA sequences needed to achieve a high level of gene expression regardless of the position of integration in transgenic mice or stably transfected cells. This review brings together the large amount of DNA sequence data from the β-globin LCR with the vast amount of functional data obtained through the use of biochemical, cellular and transgenic experimental systems. Alignment of orthologous LCR sequences from five mammalian species locates numerous conserved regions, including previously identified cis-acting elements within the cores of nuclease hypersensitive sites (HSs) as well as conserved regions located between the HS cores. The distribution of these conserved sequences, combined with the effects of LCR fragments utilized in expression studies, shows that important sites are more widely distributed in the LCR than previously anticipated, especially in and around HS2 and HS3. We propose that the HS cores plus HS flanking DNAs comprise a 'unit' to which proteins bind and form an optimally functional structure. Multiple HS units (at least three: HS2, HS3 and HS4 cores plus flanking DNAs) together establish a chromatin structure that allows the proper developmental regulation of genes within the cluster.
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