Differentiation of smooth muscle cells (SMCs) is accompanied by the transcriptional activation of an array of muscle-specific genes that confer the unique contractile and physiologic properties of this muscle cell type. The majority of smooth muscle genes are controlled by serum response factor (SRF), a widely expressed transcription factor that also regulates genes involved in cell proliferation. Myocardin and myocardin-related transcription factors (MRTFs) interact with SRF and potently stimulate SRF-dependent transcription. Gain- and loss-of-function experiments have shown myocardin to be sufficient and necessary for SMC differentiation. SMCs are highly plastic and can switch between differentiated and proliferative states in response to extracellular cues. Suppression of SMC differentiation by growth factor signaling is mediated, at least in part, by the displacement of myocardin from SRF by growth factor-dependent ternary complex factors. The association of SRF with myocardin and MRTFs provides a molecular basis for the activation of SMC genes by SRF and the responsiveness of the smooth muscle differentiation program to growth factor signaling.
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