Peter Espenshade, Ph.D.


443-287-5026 (Office), 443-287-5027 (Lab), 410-955-4129 (Fax)

Department of Cell Biology
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
725 N. Wolfe Street, 107B Physiology
Baltimore, MD 21205

Academic Titles

Professor, Associate Dean for Graduate Biomedical Education

Research Topic

Cellular regulation of cholesterol homeostasis and adaptation to hypoxia

Research Topic: Cellular regulation of cholesterol homeostasis and adaptation to hypoxia

To maintain homeostasis, cells need to measure the concentration of molecules such as nutrients, reactants, and products. Eukaryotic cells, whether single-cell fungi or part of a complex human organ, require environmental oxygen for essential reactions. Consequently, cells possess mechanisms to sense and adapt to changes in oxygen supply. The hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) is a key regulator of these adaptive responses in metazoans. Our discovery that the Sterol Regulatory Element Binding Protein (SREBP) is an oxygen-responsive transcription factor in fungi established a new paradigm for hypoxic adaptation and revealed new mechanisms for oxygen sensing.

SREBP transcription factors function as central regulators of lipid homeostasis in mammalian cells by controlling cholesterol and fatty acid synthesis. Our studies in the fission yeast Schizosaccharomyces pombe demonstrated that yeast SREBP, named Sre1, is an oxygen-regulated transcription factor that mediates adaptation of cells to low oxygen. We extended our findings to the human fungal pathogen Cryptococcus neoformans, showing that oxygen regulation of Sre1 is conserved in this opportunistic pathogen and that the SREBP pathway is required for virulence.

Novel oxygen-sensing mechanisms control Sre1 activity. We discovered that a central regulator of Sre1 activity is an oxygen-sensing prolyl hydroxylase Ofd1 (OGFOD1 in mammals), and that Sre1 is proteolytically activated by a unique mechanism requiring the Golgi-localized Dsc E3 ligase. This multi-subunit membrane E3 ligase resembles those involved in ER-associated degradation and represents the first candidate machinery for Golgi protein quality control.

Lastly, our studies in fission yeast highlighted that lipid synthesis is oxygen-dependent and that cells must adapt under hypoxia to maintain lipid supply. Solid tumors are hypoxic, and continued tumor growth requires lipid supply. Using pancreatic cancer as a model, we are testing whether the SREBP pathway is required for pancreatic tumor growth to determine whether this pathway is a therapeutic target.

Unified around the central themes of oxygen sensing and regulation of homeostasis, our ongoing and planned research goals are:

1. To define mechanisms for oxygen regulation of SREBP in yeast and humans
2. To identify signaling pathways that regulate cell growth in response to oxygen and lipid supply
3. To identify new regulators of the SREBP family of transcription factors