The sensitivity of an organism to hypoxic injury varies widely across species and among cell types. However, a systematic description of the determinants of metazoan hypoxic sensitivity is lacking. Toward this end, we screened a whole-genome RNAi library for genes that promote hypoxic sensitivity in Caenorhabditis elegans. RNAi knockdown of 198 genes conferred an invariant hypoxia-resistant phenotype (Hyp-r). Eighty-six per cent of these hyp genes had strong homologs in other organisms, 73 with human reciprocal orthologs. The hyp genes were distributed among multiple functional categories. Transcription factors, chromatin modifying enzymes, and intracellular signaling proteins were highly represented. RNAi knockdown of about half of the genes produced no apparent deleterious phenotypes. The hyp genes had significant overlap with previously identified life span extending genes. Testing of the RNAi's in a mutant background defective in somatic RNAi machinery showed that most genes function in somatic cells to control hypoxic sensitivity. DNA microarray analysis identified a subset of the hyp genes that may be hypoxia regulated. siRNA knockdown of human orthologs of the hyp genes conferred hypoxia resistance to transformed human cells for 40% of the genes tested, indicating extensive evolutionary conservation of the hypoxic regulatory activities. The results of the screen provide the first systematic picture of the genetic determinants of hypoxic sensitivity. The number and diversity of genes indicates a surprisingly nonredundant genetic network promoting hypoxic sensitivity.


  • Communicating editor: D. I. Greenstein

  • Received October 6, 2008.
  • Accepted November 25, 2008.
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