The vertebrate heart forms initially as a linear tube derived from a primary heart field in the lateral mesoderm. Recent studies in mouse and chick have demonstrated that the outflow tract and right ventricle originate from a separate source of mesoderm that is anterior to the primary heart field. The discovery of this anterior, or secondary, heart field has led to a greater understanding of the morphogenetic events involved in heart formation; however, many of the underlying molecular events controlling these processes remain to be determined. The MADS domain transcription factor MEF2C is required for proper formation of the cardiac outflow tract and right ventricle, suggesting a key role in anterior heart field development. Therefore, as a first step toward identifying the transcriptional pathways upstream of MEF2C, we introduced a lacZ reporter gene into a bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC) encompassing the murine Mef2c locus and used this recombinant to generate transgenic mice. This BAC transgene was sufficient to recapitulate endogenous Mef2c expression, and comparative sequence analyses revealed multiple regions of significant conservation in the noncoding regions of the BAC. We show that one of these conserved noncoding regions represents a transcriptional enhancer that is sufficient to direct expression of lacZ exclusively to the anterior heart field throughout embryonic development. This conserved enhancer contains two consensus GATA binding sites that are efficiently bound by the zinc finger transcription factor GATA4 and are completely required for enhancer function in vivo. This enhancer also contains two perfect consensus sites for the LIM-homeodomain protein ISL1. We show that these elements are specifically bound by ISL1 and are essential for enhancer function in transgenic embryos. Thus, these findings establish Mef2c as the first direct transcriptional target of ISL1 in the anterior heart field and support a model in which GATA factors and ISL1 serve as the earliest transcriptional regulators controlling outflow tract and right ventricle development.
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