Sensing hypoxia: physiology, genetics and epigenetics


  • Nanduri R. Prabhakar

    1. Institute for Integrative Physiology, Center for Systems Biology of O2 Sensing, Biological Sciences Division, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA
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N. R. Prabhakar: Institute for Integrative Physiology & The Center for Systems Biology of O2 Sensing, Biological Sciences Division, MC 5068; 5841 South Maryland Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637, USA. Email:


Abstract  The carotid body is a sensory organ for detecting arterial blood O2 levels and reflexly mediates systemic cardiac, vascular and respiratory responses to hypoxia. This article presents a brief review of the roles of gaseous messengers in the sensory transduction at the carotid body, genetic and epigenetic influences on hypoxic sensing and the role of the carotid body chemoreflex in cardiorespiratory diseases. Type I (also called glomus) cells, the site of O2 sensing in the carotid body, express haem oxygenase-2 and cystathionine-γ-lyase, the enzymes which catalyse the generation of CO and H2S, respectively. Physiological studies have shown that CO is an inhibitory gas messenger, which contributes to the low sensory activity during normoxia, whereas H2S is excitatory and mediates sensory stimulation by hypoxia. Hypoxia-evoked H2S generation in the carotid body requires the interaction of cystathionine-γ-lyase with haem oxygenase-2, which generates CO. Hypoxia-inducible factors 1 and 2 constitute important components of the genetic make-up in the carotid body, which influence hypoxic sensing by regulating the intracellular redox state via transcriptional regulation of pro- and antioxidant enzymes. Recent studies suggest that developmental programming of the carotid body response to hypoxia involves epigenetic changes, e.g. DNA methylation of genes encoding redox-regulating enzymes. Emerging evidence implicates heightened carotid body chemoreflex in the progression of autonomic morbidities associated with cardiorespiratory diseases, such as sleep-disordered breathing with apnoea, congestive heart failure and essential hypertension.