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Hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs) are α/β heterodimeric transcription factors modulating cellular responses to the low oxygen condition. Among three HIF-α isoforms, HIF-3α is the least studied to date. Here we show that oleoylethanolamide (OEA), a physiological lipid known to regulate food intake and metabolism, binds selectively to HIF-3α. Through crystallographic analysis of HIF-3 α/β heterodimer in both apo and OEA-bound forms, hydrogen-deuterium exchange mass spectrometry (HDX-MS), molecular dynamics (MD) simulations, and biochemical and cell-based assays, we unveil the molecular mechanism of OEA entry and binding to the PAS-B pocket of HIF-3α, and show that it leads to enhanced heterodimer stability and functional modulation of HIF-3. The identification of HIF-3α as a selective lipid sensor is consistent with recent human genetic findings linking HIF-3α with obesity, and demonstrates that endogenous metabolites can directly interact with HIF-α proteins to modulate their activities, potentially as a regulatory mechanism supplementary to the well-known oxygen-dependent HIF-α hydroxylation.

Original publication




Journal article


Nature communications

Publication Date





Helmholtz International Lab, State Key Laboratory of Microbial Technology, Shandong University, 266237, Qingdao, China.


Humans, Oxygen, Oleic Acids, Repressor Proteins, Endocannabinoids, Ligands, Apoptosis Regulatory Proteins, Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors, Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit