Nuclear hormone receptors (NHRs) are proteins that regulate gene expression in response to developmental, environmental, and nutritional signals. The activity of some NHRs is selectively and reversibly modulated by small molecular weight compounds. However, for others - termed "orphan" receptors - no such ligands have (yet) been identified, and at least some NHRs may lack natural ligands. NHRs exhibit a stereotyped architecture, with conserved N-terminal DNA-binding domains (DBDs) and more variable C-terminal ligand-binding domains (LBDs). NHRs control the transcription of remarkably diverse and specific gene networks, apparently by integrating multiple regulatory inputs that interact with distinct receptor surfaces; these inputs include small molecule ligands, transcriptional coregulators, and response elements, the genomic sites to which the receptors bind. NHRs comprise an ancient superfamily found in all metazoans, and recent findings have revealed NHR-like regulatory factors in fungi. Here, we consider NHR function and evolution in nematodes, roundworms that inhabit terrestrial, marine, and freshwater habitats; we focus in particular on the well-established experimental organism Caenorhabditis elegans. Interestingly, the C. elegans genome encodes a massively expanded NHR family; we speculate that some of the multiple physiological activities governed by individual mammalian NHRs may be distributed among multiple members of the C. elegans family, potentially focusing and simplifying functional analyses. Accordingly, investigations of relevant NHR cofactors, ligands, and response elements might also prove to be simpler; moreover, the abbreviated intergenic regions of the C. elegans genome will facilitate the assignment of response elements to target genes. Finally, the growing interest in medically relevant nematodes is providing novel insights into the function and evolution of NHRs.
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