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1.  Sperm epigenomics: challenges and opportunities 
Frontiers in Genetics  2014;5:330.
Sperm is a highly differentiated cell type whose function is to deliver a haploid genome to the oocyte. The sperm “epigenomes” were traditionally considered to be insignificant – the sperm is transcriptionally inactive, its genome is packaged in sperm-specific protamine toroids instead of nucleosomes, and its DNA methylation profile is erased immediately post-fertilization. Yet, in recent years there has been an increase in the number of reported cases of apparent epigenetic inheritance through the male germline, suggesting that the sperm epigenome may transmit information between generations. At the same time, technical advances have made the genome-wide profiling of different layers of the sperm epigenome feasible. As a result, a large number of datasets have been recently generated and analyzed with the aim to better understand what non-genetic material is contained within the sperm and whether it has any function post-fertilization. Here, we provide an overview of the current knowledge of the sperm epigenomes as well as the challenges in analysing them and the opportunities in understanding the potential non-genetic carriers of information in sperm.
PMCID: PMC4166955  PMID: 25278962
sperm; epigenomics; transcriptome; DNA methylation; chromatin; epigenetic inheritance
2.  Correction: Parallel Evolution of Chordate Cis-Regulatory Code for Development 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(11):10.1371/annotation/1fc82a4b-f9ea-461a-8987-1152078688e4.
PMCID: PMC3846458
3.  Parallel Evolution of Chordate Cis-Regulatory Code for Development 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(11):e1003904.
Urochordates are the closest relatives of vertebrates and at the larval stage, possess a characteristic bilateral chordate body plan. In vertebrates, the genes that orchestrate embryonic patterning are in part regulated by highly conserved non-coding elements (CNEs), yet these elements have not been identified in urochordate genomes. Consequently the evolution of the cis-regulatory code for urochordate development remains largely uncharacterised. Here, we use genome-wide comparisons between C. intestinalis and C. savignyi to identify putative urochordate cis-regulatory sequences. Ciona conserved non-coding elements (ciCNEs) are associated with largely the same key regulatory genes as vertebrate CNEs. Furthermore, some of the tested ciCNEs are able to activate reporter gene expression in both zebrafish and Ciona embryos, in a pattern that at least partially overlaps that of the gene they associate with, despite the absence of sequence identity. We also show that the ability of a ciCNE to up-regulate gene expression in vertebrate embryos can in some cases be localised to short sub-sequences, suggesting that functional cross-talk may be defined by small regions of ancestral regulatory logic, although functional sub-sequences may also be dispersed across the whole element. We conclude that the structure and organisation of cis-regulatory modules is very different between vertebrates and urochordates, reflecting their separate evolutionary histories. However, functional cross-talk still exists because the same repertoire of transcription factors has likely guided their parallel evolution, exploiting similar sets of binding sites but in different combinations.
Author Summary
Vertebrates share many aspects of early development with our closest chordate ancestors, the tunicates. However, whilst the repertoire of genes that orchestrate development is essentially the same in the two lineages, the genomic code that regulates these genes appears to be very different, even though it is highly conserved within vertebrates themselves. Using comparative genomics, we have identified a parallel developmental code in tunicates and confirmed that this code, despite a lack of sequence conservation, associates with a similar repertoire of genes. However, the organisation of the code spatially is very different in the two lineages, strongly suggesting that most of it arose independently in vertebrates and tunicates, and in most cases lacking any direct sequence ancestry. We have assayed elements of the tunicate code, and found that at least some of them can regulate gene expression in zebrafish embryos. Our results suggest that regulatory code has arisen independently in different animal lineages but possesses some common functionality because its evolution has been driven by a similar cohort of developmental transcription factors. Our work helps illuminate how complex, stable gene regulatory networks evolve and become fixed within lineages.
PMCID: PMC3836708  PMID: 24282393
4.  Human genes with CpG island promoters have a distinct transcription-associated chromatin organization 
Genome Biology  2012;13(11):R110.
More than 50% of human genes initiate transcription from CpG dinucleotide-rich regions referred to as CpG islands. These genes show differences in their patterns of transcription initiation, and have been reported to have higher levels of some activation-associated chromatin modifications.
Here we report that genes with CpG island promoters have a characteristic transcription-associated chromatin organization. This signature includes high levels of the transcription elongation-associated histone modifications H4K20me1, H2BK5me1 and H3K79me1/2/3 in the 5' end of the gene, depletion of the activation marks H2AK5ac, H3K14ac and H3K23ac immediately downstream of the transcription start site (TSS), and characteristic epigenetic asymmetries around the TSS. The chromosome organization factor CTCF may be bound upstream of RNA polymerase in most active CpG island promoters, and an unstable nucleosome at the TSS may be specifically marked by H4K20me3, the first example of such a modification. H3K36 monomethylation is only detected as enriched in the bodies of active genes that have CpG island promoters. Finally, as expression levels increase, peak modification levels of the histone methylations H3K9me1, H3K4me1, H3K4me2 and H3K27me1 shift further away from the TSS into the gene body.
These results suggest that active genes with CpG island promoters have a distinct step-like series of modified nucleosomes after the TSS. The identity, positioning, shape and relative ordering of transcription-associated histone modifications differ between genes with and without CpG island promoters. This supports a model where chromatin organization reflects not only transcription activity but also the type of promoter in which transcription initiates.
PMCID: PMC3580500  PMID: 23186133
5.  Chromatin Organization in Sperm May Be the Major Functional Consequence of Base Composition Variation in the Human Genome 
PLoS Genetics  2011;7(4):e1002036.
Chromatin in sperm is different from that in other cells, with most of the genome packaged by protamines not nucleosomes. Nucleosomes are, however, retained at some genomic sites, where they have the potential to transmit paternal epigenetic information. It is not understood how this retention is specified. Here we show that base composition is the major determinant of nucleosome retention in human sperm, predicting retention very well in both genic and non-genic regions of the genome. The retention of nucleosomes at GC-rich sequences with high intrinsic nucleosome affinity accounts for the previously reported retention at transcription start sites and at genes that regulate development. It also means that nucleosomes are retained at the start sites of most housekeeping genes. We also report a striking link between the retention of nucleosomes in sperm and the establishment of DNA methylation-free regions in the early embryo. Taken together, this suggests that paternal nucleosome transmission may facilitate robust gene regulation in the early embryo. We propose that chromatin organization in the male germline, rather than in somatic cells, is the major functional consequence of fine-scale base composition variation in the human genome. The selective pressure driving base composition evolution in mammals could, therefore, be the need to transmit paternal epigenetic information to the zygote.
Author Summary
In most cells, DNA is packaged by protein complexes called nucleosomes. In sperm, however, nucleosomes are only retained at a small fraction of the genome, particularly at the start sites of genes. In this work, we show that the sites at which nucleosomes are retained in sperm are specified by variation in the base composition of the human genome. At a fine scale, the human genome varies extensively in the content of GC versus AT base pairs, and we find that in both genic and non-genic regions this predicts very well where nucleosomes are retained in mature sperm. These regions include transcription start sites, especially for genes that are expressed in all cells and for genes that regulate development. We also report that regions that retain nucleosomes in sperm are likely to be protected from DNA methylation in the early embryo, suggesting a further connection between the presence of nucleosomes on the paternal genome and the establishment of gene regulation in the embryo. Based on these results, we propose that an important selective pressure on base composition evolution in mammalian genomes may be the requirement to organize chromatin in sperm in a way that facilitates gene regulation in the early embryo.
PMCID: PMC3072381  PMID: 21490963
6.  A simple principle concerning the robustness of protein complex activity to changes in gene expression 
The functions of a eukaryotic cell are largely performed by multi-subunit protein complexes that act as molecular machines or information processing modules in cellular networks. An important problem in systems biology is to understand how, in general, these molecular machines respond to perturbations.
In yeast, genes that inhibit growth when their expression is reduced are strongly enriched amongst the subunits of multi-subunit protein complexes. This applies to both the core and peripheral subunits of protein complexes, and the subunits of each complex normally have the same loss-of-function phenotypes. In contrast, genes that inhibit growth when their expression is increased are not enriched amongst the core or peripheral subunits of protein complexes, and the behaviour of one subunit of a complex is not predictive for the other subunits with respect to over-expression phenotypes.
We propose the principle that the overall activity of a protein complex is in general robust to an increase, but not to a decrease in the expression of its subunits. This means that whereas phenotypes resulting from a decrease in gene expression can be predicted because they cluster on networks of protein complexes, over-expression phenotypes cannot be predicted in this way. We discuss the implications of these findings for understanding how cells are regulated, how they evolve, and how genetic perturbations connect to disease in humans.
PMCID: PMC2242779  PMID: 18171472
7.  Parallel evolution of conserved non-coding elements that target a common set of developmental regulatory genes from worms to humans 
Genome Biology  2007;8(2):R15.
Invertebrate conserved noncoding elements (CNEs) are associated with the same core set of genes as vertebrate CNEs, and may reflect the parallel evolution of enhancers in the gene regulatory networks that define alternative animal body plans.
The human genome contains thousands of non-coding sequences that are often more conserved between vertebrate species than protein-coding exons. These highly conserved non-coding elements (CNEs) are associated with genes that coordinate development, and have been proposed to act as transcriptional enhancers. Despite their extreme sequence conservation in vertebrates, sequences homologous to CNEs have not been identified in invertebrates.
Here we report that nematode genomes contain an alternative set of CNEs that share sequence characteristics, but not identity, with their vertebrate counterparts. CNEs thus represent a very unusual class of sequences that are extremely conserved within specific animal lineages yet are highly divergent between lineages. Nematode CNEs are also associated with developmental regulatory genes, and include well-characterized enhancers and transcription factor binding sites, supporting the proposed function of CNEs as cis-regulatory elements. Most remarkably, 40 of 156 human CNE-associated genes with invertebrate orthologs are also associated with CNEs in both worms and flies.
A core set of genes that regulate development is associated with CNEs across three animal groups (worms, flies and vertebrates). We propose that these CNEs reflect the parallel evolution of alternative enhancers for a common set of developmental regulatory genes in different animal groups. This 're-wiring' of gene regulatory networks containing key developmental coordinators was probably a driving force during the evolution of animal body plans. CNEs may, therefore, represent the genomic traces of these 'hard-wired' core gene regulatory networks that specify the development of each alternative animal body plan.
PMCID: PMC1852409  PMID: 17274809
8.  Theatre: a software tool for detailed comparative analysis and visualization of genomic sequence 
Nucleic Acids Research  2003;31(13):3510-3517.
Theatre is a web-based computing system designed for the comparative analysis of genomic sequences, especially with respect to motifs likely to be involved in the regulation of gene expression. Theatre is an interface to commonly used sequence analysis tools and biological sequence databases to determine or predict the positions of coding regions, repetitive sequences and transcription factor binding sites in families of DNA sequences. The information is displayed in a manner that can be easily understood and can reveal patterns that might not otherwise have been noticed. In addition to web-based output, Theatre can produce publication quality colour hardcopies showing predicted features in aligned genomic sequences. A case study using the p53 promoter region of four mammalian species and two fish species is described. Unlike the mammalian sequences the promoter regions in fish have not been previously predicted or characterized and we report the differences in the p53 promoter region of four mammals and that predicted for two fish species. Theatre can be accessed at
PMCID: PMC168908  PMID: 12824356
9.  Highly Conserved Non-Coding Sequences Are Associated with Vertebrate Development 
PLoS Biology  2004;3(1):e7.
In addition to protein coding sequence, the human genome contains a significant amount of regulatory DNA, the identification of which is proving somewhat recalcitrant to both in silico and functional methods. An approach that has been used with some success is comparative sequence analysis, whereby equivalent genomic regions from different organisms are compared in order to identify both similarities and differences. In general, similarities in sequence between highly divergent organisms imply functional constraint. We have used a whole-genome comparison between humans and the pufferfish, Fugu rubripes, to identify nearly 1,400 highly conserved non-coding sequences. Given the evolutionary divergence between these species, it is likely that these sequences are found in, and furthermore are essential to, all vertebrates. Most, and possibly all, of these sequences are located in and around genes that act as developmental regulators. Some of these sequences are over 90% identical across more than 500 bases, being more highly conserved than coding sequence between these two species. Despite this, we cannot find any similar sequences in invertebrate genomes. In order to begin to functionally test this set of sequences, we have used a rapid in vivo assay system using zebrafish embryos that allows tissue-specific enhancer activity to be identified. Functional data is presented for highly conserved non-coding sequences associated with four unrelated developmental regulators (SOX21, PAX6, HLXB9, and SHH), in order to demonstrate the suitability of this screen to a wide range of genes and expression patterns. Of 25 sequence elements tested around these four genes, 23 show significant enhancer activity in one or more tissues. We have identified a set of non-coding sequences that are highly conserved throughout vertebrates. They are found in clusters across the human genome, principally around genes that are implicated in the regulation of development, including many transcription factors. These highly conserved non-coding sequences are likely to form part of the genomic circuitry that uniquely defines vertebrate development.
Highly conserved non-coding sequences in vertebrate genomes are frequently located around genes involved in development and can direct tissue-specific gene expression in functional assays.
PMCID: PMC526512  PMID: 15630479

Results 1-9 (9)