Long-range interactions between transcription regulatory elements play an important role in gene activation, epigenetic silencing, and chromatin organization. Transcriptional activation or repression of developmentally regulated genes is often accomplished through tissue specific chromatin architecture and dynamic localization between active transcription factories and repressive Polycomb bodies. However, the mechanisms underlying the structural organization of chromatin and the coordination of physical interactions are not fully understood. Insulators and Polycomb group proteins form highly conserved multi-protein complexes that mediate functional long-range interactions, and have proposed roles in nuclear organization. In this review, we explore recent findings that have broadened our understanding of the function of these proteins and provide an integrative model for the roles of insulators in nuclear organization.
CTCF; Polycomb; TFIIIC; Cohesin; Epigenetics
In metazoans, enhancers of gene transcription must often exert their effects over tens of kilobases of DNA. Over the last decade it has become clear that to do this, enhancers come into close proximity with target promoters with the looping away of intervening sequences. In a few cases proteins that are involved in the establishment or maintenance of these loops have been revealed but how the proper gene target is selected remains mysterious. Chromatin insulators had been appreciated as elements that play a role in enhancer fidelity through their enhancer blocking or barrier activity. However, recent work suggests more direct participation of insulators in enhancer-gene interactions. The emerging view begins to incorporate transcription activation by distant enhancers with large scale nuclear architecture and sub-nuclear movement.
Cohesin is a multiprotein ringed complex that is most well known for its role in stabilizing the association of sister chromatids between S phase and M. More recently cohesin was found to be associated with transcriptional insulators, elements that are associated with the organization of chromatin into regulatory domains. The human major histocompatibility complex class II (MHC-II) locuscontains ten intergenic elements, termed MHC-II insulators, which bind the transcriptional insulator protein CCCTC transcription factor (CTCF). MHC-II insulators interact with each other forming a base architecture of discrete loops and potential regulatory domains. When MHC-II genes are expressed, their proximal promoter regulatory regions reorganize to the foci established by the interacting MHC-II insulators. MHC-II insulators also bind cohesin, but the functional role of cohesin in regulating this system is not known. Here we show that the binding of cohesin to MHC-II insulators occurred irrespective of MHC-II expression but was required for optimal expression of the HLA-DR and HLA-DQ genes. In a DNA dependent manner, cohesin subunits interacted with CTCF and the MHC-II specific transcription factors RFX and CIITA. Intriguingly, cohesin subunits were important for DNA looping interactions between the HLA-DRA promoter region and a 5’ MHC-II insulator but were not required for interactions between the MHC-II insulators themselves. This latter observation introduces cohesin as a regulator of MHC-II expression by initiating or stabilizing MHC-II promoter regulatory element interactions with the MHC-II insulator elements; events which are required for maximal MHC-II transcription.
Control of gene expression involves the concerted action of multiple regulatory elements some of which can act over large genomic distances. Physical interaction among these elements can lead to looping of the chromatin fiber. Although posttranslational modifications of chromatin are thought to play a role in the conveyance of epigenetic information, it is largely unknown whether higher order chromatin organization such as looping contributes to epigenetic memory. A related unresolved question is whether chromatin loops are the cause or the effect of transcriptional regulation. Recent work from diverse organisms suggests a memory function for long-range chromatin interactions. It is proposed that higher order folding of the chromatin fiber can serve to maintain active and repressed states of gene expression.
Identification of regulatory elements and their target genes is complicated by the fact that regulatory elements can act over large genomic distances. Identification of long-range acting elements is particularly important in the case of disease genes as mutations in these elements can result in human disease. It is becoming increasingly clear that long-range control of gene expression is facilitated by chromatin looping interactions. These interactions can be detected by chromosome conformation capture (3C). Here, we employed 3C as a discovery tool for identification of long-range regulatory elements that control the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator gene, CFTR. We identified four elements in a 460-kb region around the locus that loop specifically to the CFTR promoter exclusively in CFTR expressing cells. The elements are located 20 and 80 kb upstream; and 109 and 203 kb downstream of the CFTR promoter. These elements contain DNase I hypersensitive sites and histone modification patterns characteristic of enhancers. The elements also interact with each other and the latter two activate the CFTR promoter synergistically in reporter assays. Our results reveal novel long-range acting elements that control expression of CFTR and suggest that 3C-based approaches can be used for discovery of novel regulatory elements.
RNA polymerases can be shared by a particular group of genes in a transcription “factory” in nuclei, where transcription may be coordinated in concert with the distribution of coexpressed genes in higher-eukaryote genomes. Moreover, gene expression can be modulated by regulatory elements working over a long distance. Here, we compared the conformation of a 130-kb chromatin region containing the mouse α-globin cluster and their flanking housekeeping genes in 14.5-day-postcoitum fetal liver and brain cells. The analysis of chromatin conformation showed that the active α1 and α2 globin genes and upstream regulatory elements are in close spatial proximity, indicating that looping may function in the transcriptional regulation of the mouse α-globin cluster. In fetal liver cells, the active α1 and α2 genes, but not the inactive ζ gene, colocalize with neighboring housekeeping genes C16orf33, C16orf8, MPG, and C16orf35. This is in sharp contrast with the mouse α-globin genes in nonexpressing cells, which are separated from the congregated housekeeping genes. A comparison of RNA polymerase II (Pol II) occupancies showed that active α1 and α2 gene promoters have a much higher RNA Pol II enrichment in liver than in brain. The RNA Pol II occupancy at the ζ gene promoter, which is specifically repressed during development, is much lower than that at the α1 and α2 promoters. Thus, the mouse α-globin gene cluster may be regulated through moving in or out active globin gene promoters and regulatory elements of a preexisting transcription factory in the nucleus, which is maintained by the flanking clustered housekeeping genes, to activate or inactivate α-globin gene expression.
When placed between an enhancer and promoter, certain DNA sequence elements inhibit enhancer-stimulated gene expression. The best characterized of these enhancer blocking insulators, gypsy in Drosophila and the CTCF-binding element in vertebrates and flies, stabilize contacts between distant genomic regulatory sites leading to the formation of loop domains. Current results show that CTCF mediates long-range contacts in the mouse β-globin locus and at the Igf2/H19 imprinted locus. Recently described active chromatin hubs and transcription factories also involve long-range interactions; it is likely that CTCF interferes with their formation when acting as an insulator. The properties of CTCF, and its newly described genomic distribution, suggest that it may play an important role in large scale nuclear architecture, perhaps mediated by the co-factors with which it interacts in vivo.
Long-range interactions between regulatory DNA elements such as enhancers, insulators and promoters play an important role in regulating transcription. As chromatin contacts have been found throughout the human genome and in different cell types, spatial transcriptional control is now viewed as a general mechanism of gene expression regulation. Chromosome Conformation Capture Carbon Copy (5C) and its variant Hi-C are techniques used to measure the interaction frequency (IF) between specific regions of the genome. Our goal is to use the IF data generated by these experiments to computationally model and analyze three-dimensional chromatin organization.
We formulate a probabilistic model linking 5C/Hi-C data to physical distances and describe a Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) approach called MCMC5C to generate a representative sample from the posterior distribution over structures from IF data. Structures produced from parallel MCMC runs on the same dataset demonstrate that our MCMC method mixes quickly and is able to sample from the posterior distribution of structures and find subclasses of structures. Structural properties (base looping, condensation, and local density) were defined and their distribution measured across the ensembles of structures generated. We applied these methods to a biological model of human myelomonocyte cellular differentiation and identified distinct chromatin conformation signatures (CCSs) corresponding to each of the cellular states. We also demonstrate the ability of our method to run on Hi-C data and produce a model of human chromosome 14 at 1Mb resolution that is consistent with previously observed structural properties as measured by 3D-FISH.
We believe that tools like MCMC5C are essential for the reliable analysis of data from the 3C-derived techniques such as 5C and Hi-C. By integrating complex, high-dimensional and noisy datasets into an easy to interpret ensemble of three-dimensional conformations, MCMC5C allows researchers to reliably interpret the result of their assay and contrast conformations under different conditions.
Recent studies on transcriptional control of gene expression have pinpointed the importance of long-range interactions and three-dimensional organization of chromatins within the nucleus. Distal regulatory elements such as enhancers may activate transcription over long distances; hence, their action must be restricted within appropriate boundaries to prevent illegitimate activation of non-target genes. Insulators are DNA elements with enhancer-blocking and/or chromatin-bordering functions. In vertebrates, the versatile transcription regulator CCCTC-binding factor (CTCF) is the only identified trans-acting factor that confers enhancer-blocking insulator activity. CTCF-binding sites were found to be commonly distributed along the vertebrate genomes. We have constructed a CTCF-binding site database (CTCFBSDB) to characterize experimentally identified and computationally predicted CTCF-binding sties. Biological knowledge and data from multiple resources have been integrated into the database, including sequence data, genetic polymorphisms, function annotations, histone methylation profiles, gene expression profiles and comparative genomic information. A web-based user interface was implemented for data retrieval, analysis and visualization. In silico prediction of CTCF-binding motifs is provided to facilitate the identification of candidate insulators in the query sequences submitted by users. The database can be accessed at http://insulatordb.utmem.edu/
There are many examples within gene complexes of transcriptional enhancers interacting with only a subset of target promoters. A number of molecular mechanisms including promoter competition, insulators and chromatin looping are thought to play a role in regulating these interactions. At the Drosophila bithorax complex (BX-C), the IAB5 enhancer specifically drives gene expression only from the Abdominal-B (Abd-B) promoter, even though the enhancer and promoter are 55 kb apart and are separated by at least three insulators. In previous studies, we discovered that a 255 bp cis-regulatory module, the promoter tethering element (PTE), located 5′ of the Abd-B transcriptional start site is able to tether IAB5 to the Abd-B promoter in transgenic embryo assays. In this study we examine the functional role of the PTE at the endogenous BX-C using transposon-mediated mutagenesis. Disruption of the PTE by P element insertion results in a loss of enhancer-directed Abd-B expression during embryonic development and a homeotic transformation of abdominal segments. A partial deletion of the PTE and neighboring upstream genomic sequences by imprecise excision of the P element also results in a similar loss of Abd-B expression in embryos. These results demonstrate that the PTE is an essential component of the regulatory network at the BX-C and is required in vivo to mediate specific long-range enhancer-promoter interactions.
The mammalian genome is packed tightly in the nucleus of the cell. This packing is primarily facilitated by histone proteins and results in an ordered organization of the genome in chromosome territories that can be roughly divided in heterochromatic and euchromatic domains. On top of this organization several distinct gene regulatory elements on the same chromosome or other chromosomes are thought to dynamically communicate via chromatin looping. Advances in genome-wide technologies have revealed the existence of a plethora of these regulatory elements in various eukaryotic genomes. These regulatory elements are defined by particular in vitro assays as promoters, enhancers, insulators, and boundary elements. However, recent studies indicate that the in vivo distinction between these elements is often less strict. Regulatory elements are bound by a mixture of common and lineage-specific transcription factors which mediate the long-range interactions between these elements. Inappropriate modulation of the binding of these transcription factors can alter the interactions between regulatory elements, which in turn leads to aberrant gene expression with disease as an ultimate consequence. Here we discuss the bi-modal behavior of regulatory elements that act in cis (with a focus on enhancers), how their activity is modulated by transcription factor binding and the effect this has on gene regulation.
enhancer; transcription factor; chromatin looping; transcription; cis-regulation
Enhancers are regulatory DNA sequences that activate transcription over long distances. Recent studies revealed a widespread role of distant activation in eukaryotic gene regulation and in development of various human diseases, including cancer. Genomic and gene-targeted studies of enhancer action revealed novel mechanisms of transcriptional activation over a distance. They include formation of stable, inactive DNA-protein complexes at the enhancer and target promoter before activation, facilitated distant communication by looping of the spacer chromatin-covered DNA, and promoter activation by mechanisms that are different from classic recruiting. These studies suggest the similarity between the looping mechanisms involved in enhancer action on DNA in bacteria and in chromatin of higher organisms.
Knockdown of the insulator factor CCCTC binding factor (CTCF), which binds XL9, an intergenic element located between HLA-DRB1 and HLA-DQA1, was found to diminish expression of these genes. The mechanism involved interactions between CTCF and class II transactivator (CIITA), the master regulator of major histocompatibility complex class II (MHC-II) gene expression, and the formation of long-distance chromatin loops between XL9 and the proximal promoter regions of these MHC-II genes. The interactions were inducible and dependent on the activity of CIITA, regulatory factor X, and CTCF. RNA fluorescence in situ hybridizations show that both genes can be expressed simultaneously from the same chromosome. Collectively, the results suggest a model whereby both HLA-DRB1 and HLA-DQA1 loci can interact simultaneously with XL9, and describe a new regulatory mechanism for these MHC-II genes involving the alteration of the general chromatin conformation of the region and their regulation by CTCF.
Barrier elements that are able to block the propagation of transcriptional silencing in yeast are functionally similar to chromatin boundary/insulator elements in metazoans that delimit functional chromosomal domains. We show that the upstream activating sequences of many highly expressed ribosome protein genes and glycolytic genes exhibit barrier activity. Analyses of these barriers indicate that binding sites for transcriptional regulators Rap1p, Abf1p, Reb1p, Adr1p and Gcn4p may participate in barrier function. We also present evidence suggesting that Rap1p is directly involved in barrier activity, and its barrier function correlates with local changes in chromatin structure. We further demonstrate that tethering the transcriptional activation domain of Rap1p to DNA is sufficient to recapitulate barrier activity. Moreover, targeting the activation domain of Adr1p or Gcn4p also establishes a barrier to silencing. These results support the notion that transcriptional regulators could also participate in delimiting functional domains in the genome.
Enhancers can regulate designate promoters over long distances by forming chromatin loops. Whether chromatin loops are lost or reconfigured during gene repression is largely unexplored. We examined the chromosome conformation of the Kit gene that is expressed during early erythropoiesis, but is downregulated upon cell maturation. Kit expression is controlled by sequential occupancy of two GATA family transcription factors. In immature cells, a distal enhancer bound by GATA-2 is in physical proximity with the active Kit promoter. Upon cell maturation, GATA-1 displaces GATA-2 and triggers a loss of the enhancer/promoter interaction. Moreover, GATA-1 reciprocally increases the proximity in nuclear space among distinct downstream GATA elements. GATA-1-induced transitions in chromatin conformation are not simply the consequence of transcription inhibition and require the cofactor FOG-1. This work shows that a GATA factor exchange reconfigures higher order chromatin organization and suggests that de novo chromatin loop formation is employed by nuclear factors to specify repressive outcomes.
chromatin; chromatin loops; GATA-1; GATA-2; gene expression; hematopoiesis; erythropoiesis; Kit
Eukaryotic chromosomes are condensed into several hierarchical levels of complexity: DNA is wrapped around core histones to form nucleosomes, nucleosomes form a higher-order structure called chromatin, and chromatin is subsequently compartmentalized in part by the combination of multiple specific or unspecific long-range contacts. The conformation of chromatin at these three levels greatly influences DNA metabolism and transcription. One class of chromatin regulatory proteins called insulator factors may organize chromatin both locally, by setting up barriers between heterochromatin and euchromatin, and globally by establishing platforms for long-range interactions. Here, we review recent data revealing a global role of insulator proteins in the regulation of transcription through the formation of clusters of long-range interactions that impact different levels of chromatin organization.
Recent years have seen unprecedented characterization of mammalian chromatin thanks to advances in chromatin assays, antibody development and genomics. Genome-wide maps of chromatin state can now be readily acquired using microarrays or next-generation sequencing technologies. These datasets reveal local and long-range chromatin patterns that offer insight into the locations and functions of underlying regulatory elements and genes. These patterns are dynamic across developmental stages and lineages. Global studies of chromatin in embryonic stem cells have led to intriguing hypotheses regarding Polycomb/trithorax and RNA polymerase roles in ‘poising’ transcription. Chromatin state maps thus provide a rich resource for understanding chromatin at a ‘systems level’, and a starting point for mechanistic studies aimed at defining epigenetic controls that underlie development.
Insulators are DNA sequences that control the interactions among genomic regulatory elements and act as chromatin boundaries. A thorough understanding of their location and function is necessary to address the complexities of metazoan gene regulation. We studied by ChIP–chip the genome-wide binding sites of 6 insulator-associated proteins—dCTCF, CP190, BEAF-32, Su(Hw), Mod(mdg4), and GAF—to obtain the first comprehensive map of insulator elements in Drosophila embryos. We identify over 14,000 putative insulators, including all classically defined insulators. We find two major classes of insulators defined by dCTCF/CP190/BEAF-32 and Su(Hw), respectively. Distributional analyses of insulators revealed that particular sub-classes of insulator elements are excluded between cis-regulatory elements and their target promoters; divide differentially expressed, alternative, and divergent promoters; act as chromatin boundaries; are associated with chromosomal breakpoints among species; and are embedded within active chromatin domains. Together, these results provide a map demarcating the boundaries of gene regulatory units and a framework for understanding insulator function during the development and evolution of Drosophila.
The spatiotemporal specificity of gene expression is controlled by interactions among regulatory proteins, cis-regulatory elements, chromatin modifications, and genes. These interactions can occur over large distances, and the mechanisms by which they are controlled are poorly understood. Insulators are DNA sequences that can both block the interaction between regulatory elements and genes, as well as block the spread of regions of modified chromatin. To date, relatively few insulators have been identified in developing Drosophila embryos. We here present the genome wide identification of over 14,000 binding sites for 6 insulator-associated proteins. We demonstrate the existence of two broad classes of insulators. Insulators of both classes are enriched at the boundaries of a particular chromatin modification. However, only insulators bound by BEAF-32, CP190, and dCTCF are enriched in regions of open chromatin or demarcate gene boundaries, with a particular enrichment between differentially expressed promoters. Furthermore, insulators of this class are enriched at points of chromosomal rearrangement among the 12 species of sequenced Drosophila, suggesting that insulator defined regulatory boundaries are evolutionarily conserved.
There is growing consensus that genome organization and long-range gene regulation involves partitioning of the genome into domains of distinct epigenetic chromatin states. Chromatin insulator or barrier elements are key components of these processes as they can establish boundaries between chromatin states. The ability of elements such as the paradigm β-globin HS4 insulator to block the range of enhancers or the spread of repressive histone modifications is well established. Here we have addressed the hypothesis that a barrier element in vertebrates should be capable of defending a gene from silencing by DNA methylation. Using an established stable reporter gene system, we find that HS4 acts specifically to protect a gene promoter from de novo DNA methylation. Notably, protection from methylation can occur in the absence of histone acetylation or transcription. There is a division of labor at HS4; the sequences that mediate protection from methylation are separable from those that mediate CTCF-dependent enhancer blocking and USF-dependent histone modification recruitment. The zinc finger protein VEZF1 was purified as the factor that specifically interacts with the methylation protection elements. VEZF1 is a candidate CpG island protection factor as the G-rich sequences bound by VEZF1 are frequently found at CpG island promoters. Indeed, we show that VEZF1 elements are sufficient to mediate demethylation and protection of the APRT CpG island promoter from DNA methylation. We propose that many barrier elements in vertebrates will prevent DNA methylation in addition to blocking the propagation of repressive histone modifications, as either process is sufficient to direct the establishment of an epigenetically stable silent chromatin state.
DNA sequences known as chromatin insulator or barrier elements are considered key components of genome organization as they can establish boundaries between transcriptionally permissive and repressive chromatin domains. Here we address the hypothesis that barrier elements in vertebrates can protect genes from transcriptional silencing that is marked by DNA methylation. We have found that the HS4 insulator element from the β-globin gene locus can protect a gene promoter from DNA methylation. Protection from DNA methylation is separable from other insulator activities and is mapped to three transcription factor binding sites occupied by the zinc finger protein VEZF1, a novel chromatin barrier protein. VEZF1 is a candidate factor for the protection of promoters from DNA methylation. We found that VEZF1-specific binding sites are sufficient to mediate demethylation and protection of the APRT gene promoter from DNA methylation. We propose that barrier elements in vertebrates must be capable of preventing DNA methylation in addition to blocking the propagation of silencing histone modifications, as either process is sufficient to direct the establishment of an inactive chromatin state.
Nuclear receptors are involved in a myriad of physiological processes, responding to ligands and binding to DNA at sequence-specific cis-regulatory elements. This binding occurs in the context of chromatin, a critical factor in regulating eukaryotic transcription. Recent high-throughput assays have examined nuclear receptor action genome-wide, advancing our understanding of receptor binding to regulatory elements. Here we discuss current knowledge of genome-wide response element occupancy by receptors, and the function of transcription factor networks in regulating nuclear receptor action. We highlight emerging roles for the epigenome, chromatin remodeling, histone modification, histone variants and long-range chromosomal interactions in nuclear receptor binding and receptor-dependent gene regulation. These mechanisms contribute importantly to the action of nuclear receptors in health and disease.
The functional output of the genome is closely dependent on its organization within the nucleus, which ranges from the 10 nm chromatin fiber to the three-dimensional arrangement of this fiber in the nuclear space. Recent observations suggest that intra-and inter-chromosomal interactions between distant sequences underlie several aspects of transcription regulatory processes. These contacts can bring enhancers close to their target genes, or prevent inappropriate interactions between regulatory sequences via insulators. In addition, intra- and inter-chromosomal interactions can bring co-activated or co-repressed genes to the same nuclear location. Recent technological advances have made it possible to map long-range cis and trans interactions at relatively high resolution. This information is being used to develop three-dimensional maps of the arrangement of the genome in the nucleus and to understand causal relationships between nuclear structure and function.
Chromatin; Epigenetics; Transcription; Nucleus
Regulatory DNA elements such as enhancers, silencers and insulators are embedded in metazoan genomes, and they control gene expression during development. Although they fulfil different roles, they share specific properties. Herein we discuss some examples and a parsimonious model for their function is proposed. All are transcription units that tether their target promoters close to, or distant from, transcriptional hot spots (or 'factories').
enhancer; silencer; insulator; transcription factory; hub; long-range interactions; chromosome conformation capture; three-dimensional genome architecture
Long-distance regulatory elements and local chromatin structure are critical for proper regulation of gene expression. Here we characterize the chromatin conformation of the chicken α-globin silencer-enhancer elements located 3′ of the domain. We found a characteristic and erythrocyte-specific structure between the previously defined silencer and the enhancer, defined by two nuclease hypersensitive sites, which appear when the enhancer is active during erythroid differentiation. Fine mapping of these sites demonstrates the absence of a positioned nucleosome and the association of GATA-1. Functional analyses of episomal vectors, as well as stably integrated constructs, revealed that GATA-1 plays a major role in defining both the chromatin structure and the enhancer activity. We detected a progressive enrichment of histone acetylation on critical enhancer nuclear factor binding sites, in correlation with the formation of an apparent nucleosome-free region. On the basis of these results, we propose that the local chromatin structure of the chicken α-globin enhancer plays a central role in its capacity to differentially regulate α-globin gene expression during erythroid differentiation and development.
Transcriptional regulation of human genes depends not only on promoters and nearby cis-regulatory elements, but also on distal regulatory elements such as enhancers, insulators, locus control regions, and silencing elements, which are often located far away from the genes they control. Our knowledge of human distal regulatory elements is very limited, but the last several years have seen rapid progress in the development of strategies to identify these long-range regulatory sequences throughout the human genome. Here, we review these advances, focusing on two important classes of distal regulatory sequences — enhancers and insulators.
Chromatin folding inside the interphase nucleus of eukaryotic cells is done on multiple scales of length and time. Despite recent progress in understanding the folding motifs of chromatin, the higher-order structure still remains elusive. Various experimental studies reveal a tight connection between genome folding and function. Chromosomes fold into a confined subspace of the nucleus and form distinct territories. Chromatin looping seems to play a dominant role both in transcriptional regulation as well as in chromatin organization and has been assumed to be mediated by long-range interactions in many polymer models. However, it remains a crucial question which mechanisms are necessary to make two chromatin regions become co-located, i.e. have them in spatial proximity. We demonstrate that the formation of loops can be accomplished solely on the basis of diffusional motion. The probabilistic nature of temporary contacts mimics the effects of proteins, e.g. transcription factors, in the solvent. We establish testable quantitative predictions by deriving scale-independent measures for comparison to experimental data. In this Dynamic Loop (DL) model, the co-localization probability of distant elements is strongly increased compared to linear non-looping chains. The model correctly describes folding into a confined space as well as the experimentally observed cell-to-cell variation. Most importantly, at biological densities, model chromosomes occupy distinct territories showing less inter-chromosomal contacts than linear chains. Thus, dynamic diffusion-based looping, i.e. gene co-localization, provides a consistent framework for chromatin organization in eukaryotic interphase nuclei.