Retinoids (vitamin A) are crucial for most forms of life. In chordates, they have important roles in the developing nervous system and notochord and many other embryonic structures, as well as in maintenance of epithelial surfaces, immune competence, and reproduction. The ability of all-trans retinoic acid to regulate expression of several hundred genes through binding to nuclear transcription factors is believed to mediate most of these functions. The role of all-trans retinoic may extend beyond the regulation of gene transcription because a large number of noncoding RNAs also are regulated by retinoic acid. Additionally, extra-nuclear mechanisms of action of retinoids are also being identified. In organisms ranging from prokaryotes to humans, retinal is covalently linked to G protein-coupled transmembrane receptors called opsins. These receptors function as light-driven ion pumps, mediators of phototaxis, or photosensory pigments. In vertebrates phototransduction is initiated by a photochemical reaction where opsin-bound 11-cis-retinal is isomerized to all-trans-retinal. The photosensitive receptor is restored via the retinoid visual cycle. Multiple genes encoding components of this cycle have been identified and linked to many human retinal diseases.
Central aspects of vitamin A absorption, enzymatic oxidation of all-trans retinol to all-trans retinal and all-trans retinoic acid, and esterification of all-trans retinol have been clarified. Furthermore, specific binding proteins are involved in several of these enzymatic processes as well as in delivery of all-trans retinoic acid to nuclear receptors. Thus, substantial progress has been made in our understanding of retinoid metabolism and function. This insight has improved our view of retinoids as critical molecules in vision, normal embryonic development, and in control of cellular growth, differentiation, and death throughout life. © 2006 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Neurobiol 66: 606–630, 2006