Systemic iron homeostasis involves a negative feedback circuit in which the expression level of the peptide hormone hepcidin depends on and controls the iron blood levels. Hepcidin expression is regulated by the BMP6/SMAD and IL6/STAT signaling cascades. Deregulation of either pathway causes iron-related diseases such as hemochromatosis or anemia of inflammation. We quantitatively analyzed how BMP6 and IL6 control hepcidin expression. Transcription factor (TF) phosphorylation and reporter gene expression were measured under co-stimulation conditions, and the promoter was perturbed by mutagenesis. Using mathematical modeling, we systematically analyzed potential mechanisms of cooperative and competitive promoter regulation by the transcription factors, and experimentally validated the model predictions. Our results reveal that hepcidin cross-regulation primarily occurs by combinatorial transcription factor binding to the promoter, whereas signaling crosstalk is insignificant. We find that the presence of two BMP-responsive elements enhances the steepness of the promoter response towards the iron-sensing BMP signaling axis, which promotes iron homeostasis in vivo. IL6 co-stimulation reduces the promoter sensitivity towards the BMP signal, because the SMAD and STAT transcription factors compete for recruiting RNA polymerase to the transcription start site. This may explain why inflammatory signals disturb iron homeostasis in anemia of inflammation. Taken together, our results reveal why the iron homeostasis circuit is sensitive to perturbations implicated in disease.
The nutritional iron uptake is tightly regulated because the body has limited capacity of iron excretion. Mammals maintain iron homeostasis by a negative feedback loop, in which the peptide hepcidin senses the iron blood level and controls iron resorption. Molecular perturbations in the homeostasis loop lead to iron-related diseases such as hemochromatosis or anemia of inflammation. Quantitative studies are required to understand the dynamics of the iron homeostasis circuitry in health and disease. We investigated how the biological activity of hepcidin is regulated by combining experiments with mathematical modeling. We present a multi-scale model that describes the signaling network and the gene promoter controlling hepcidin expression. Possible scenarios of hepcidin regulation were systematically tested against experimental data, and interpreted using a network model of iron metabolism in vivo. The analysis showed that the presence of multiple redundant regulatory elements in the hepcidin gene promoter facilitates homeostasis, because changes in iron blood levels are sensed with high sensitivity. We further suggest that inflammatory signals establish molecular competition at the hepcidin promoter, thereby reducing its iron sensitivity and leading to a loss of homeostasis in anemia of inflammation. We conclude that quantitative insights into hepcidin expression regulation explain features of systemic iron homeostasis.