Inter-species hybrids can be used to dissect the relative contribution of cis and trans effects to the evolution of nucleosome positioning. Most (∼70%) differences in nucleosome positioning between two closely related yeast species are due to cis effects.Cis effects are primarily due to divergence of AT-rich nucleosome-disfavoring sequences, but are not associated with divergence of nucleosome-favoring sequences.Differences in nucleosome positioning propagate to multiple adjacent nucleosomes, supporting the statistical positioning hypothesis.Divergence of nucleosome positioning is excluded from regulatory elements and is not correlated with gene expression divergence, suggesting a neutral mode of evolution.
Phenotypic diversity is often due to changes in gene regulation, and recent studies have characterized extensive differences between the gene expression programs of closely related species (Khaitovich et al, 2006; Tirosh et al, 2009). However, very little is known about the mechanisms that drive this divergence. Here, we analyze the evolution of nucleosome positioning, by comparing the patterns of nucleosomes between two yeast species, as well as generating the allele-specific nucleosome profile in their hybrid. We ask two main questions: (1) what is the genetic basis of inter-species differences in nucleosome positioning? and (2) what is the regulatory function of these differences?
Generally speaking, we can classify the genetic basis of the divergence in nucleosome positioning into two mechanisms. First, mutations in the local DNA sequence may influence the ability to bind nucleosomes at this region; we refer to these as cis effects. Second, mutations may affect the activity of various proteins that alter nucleosome positioning either actively (e.g. chromatin-remodeling enzymes) or by simply competing with nucleosomes for binding to the same DNA sequence (e.g. transcription factors); we refer to these as trans effects.
To classify the observed inter-species differences into cis versus trans effects, we measured allele-specific nucleosome positions within the inter-specific hybrid of the two species (Wittkopp et al, 2004; Tirosh et al, 2009). The hybrid contains the alleles of both species; hence, cis effects, which involve mutations that discriminate between the two alleles, will be maintained in the hybrid so that nucleosome positioning will be different between the alleles coming from the different species. Trans effects, in contrast, will not discriminate between the two hybrid alleles from the different species, as these two alleles reside together at the same trans environment (hybrid nucleus) and are thus regulated by the same set of proteins—the combination of proteins from the two species. Using this approach, we found that ∼70% of the inter-species differences in nucleosome positioning are due to cis effects, whereas the rest is due to trans effects.
The local DNA sequence is indeed known to affect nucleosome positions, and many features of DNA sequences were proposed to influence nucleosome binding, either by rejecting nucleosomes, or by being favorable for nucleosome binding (Segal et al, 2006; Lee et al, 2007; Kaplan et al, 2009). We find, however, that nucleosome positions diverged primarily through changes in AT-rich sequences, which exclude nucleosomes, whereas mutations in sequences that correlate with high-nucleosome occupancy do not influence inter-species divergence.
Nucleosomes restrict the access of proteins to the DNA and may thus affect DNA-related processes such as transcription, recombination or replication. Indeed, promoters and regulatory sequences are often depleted of nucleosomes, and highly transcribed genes are associated with low occupancy of nucleosomes at their promoters (Lee et al, 2007). Several earlier studies also suggested that evolutionary divergence of gene expression is driven by changes in chromatin structure (Lee et al, 2006; Choi and Kim, 2008; Tirosh et al, 2008; Field et al, 2009). However, we find that nucleosome positions (or occupancy) at regulatory elements are largely conserved, and furthermore, that the inter-species differences in nucleosome positions do not correlate with gene expression differences. These results suggest that nucleosome positioning is not a central mechanism for evolutionary changes in gene regulation and that most of the observed changes may be due to neutral drift.
Does the apparent low influence of nucleosome positioning on gene expression divergence implies that nucleosome positions do not have a function in gene regulation? To address this, we examined two additional modes of gene regulation: transcriptional response to changes in growth conditions (glucose versus glycerol media), and the expression differences between different cell types (haploid versus diploid cells). Consistent with earlier studies, we found that the response to growth conditions is significantly, albeit weakly, associated with changes in nucleosome positioning. Interestingly, we also found a strikingly strong association between gene expression and nucleosomal changes in the two cell types. Taken together, these results suggest that nucleosome positioning is used preferentially for biological processes in which genes are turned on and off (e.g. different cell type), but less so during divergence of closely related species in which gradual changes accumulate over time.
Gene regulation differs greatly between related species, constituting a major source of phenotypic diversity. Recent studies characterized extensive differences in the gene expression programs of closely related species. In contrast, virtually nothing is known about the evolution of chromatin structure and how it influences the divergence of gene expression. Here, we compare the genome-wide nucleosome positioning of two closely related yeast species and, by profiling their inter-specific hybrid, trace the genetic basis of the observed differences into mutations affecting the local DNA sequences (cis effects) or the upstream regulators (trans effects). The majority (∼70%) of inter-species differences is due to cis effects, leaving a significant contribution (30%) for trans factors. We show that cis effects are well explained by mutations in nucleosome-disfavoring AT-rich sequences, but are not associated with divergence of nucleosome-favoring sequences. Differences in nucleosome positioning propagate to multiple adjacent nucleosomes, supporting the statistical positioning hypothesis, and we provide evidence that nucleosome-free regions, but not the +1 nucleosome, serve as stable border elements. Surprisingly, although we find that differential nucleosome positioning among cell types is strongly correlated with differential expression, this does not seem to be the case for evolutionary changes: divergence of nucleosome positioning is excluded from regulatory elements and is not correlated with gene expression divergence, suggesting a primarily neutral mode of evolution. Our results provide evolutionary insights to the genetic determinants and regulatory function of nucleosome positioning.