A key step in understanding gene regulation is to identify the repertoire of transcription factor binding motifs (TFBMs) that form the building blocks of promoters and other regulatory elements. Identifying these experimentally is very laborious, and the number of TFBMs discovered remains relatively small, especially when compared with the hundreds of transcription factor genes predicted in metazoan genomes. We have used a recently developed statistical motif discovery approach, NestedMICA, to detect candidate TFBMs from a large set of Drosophila melanogaster promoter regions. Of the 120 motifs inferred in our initial analysis, 25 were statistically significant matches to previously reported motifs, while 87 appeared to be novel. Analysis of sequence conservation and motif positioning suggested that the great majority of these discovered motifs are predictive of functional elements in the genome. Many motifs showed associations with specific patterns of gene expression in the D. melanogaster embryo, and we were able to obtain confident annotation of expression patterns for 25 of our motifs, including eight of the novel motifs. The motifs are available through Tiffin, a new database of DNA sequence motifs. We have discovered many new motifs that are overrepresented in D. melanogaster promoter regions, and offer several independent lines of evidence that these are novel TFBMs. Our motif dictionary provides a solid foundation for further investigation of regulatory elements in Drosophila, and demonstrates techniques that should be applicable in other species. We suggest that further improvements in computational motif discovery should narrow the gap between the set of known motifs and the total number of transcription factors in metazoan genomes.
In contrast to the genomic sequences that encode proteins, little is known about the regulatory elements that instruct the cell as to when and where a given gene should be active. Regulatory elements are thought to consist of clusters of short DNA words (motifs), each of which acts as a binding site for sequence-specific DNA binding protein. Thus, building a comprehensive dictionary of such motifs is an important step towards a broader understanding of gene regulation. Using the recently published NestedMICA method for detecting overrepresented motifs in a set of sequences, we build a dictionary of 120 motifs from regulatory sequences in the fruitfly genome, 87 of which are novel. Analysis of positional biases, conservation across species, and association with specific patterns of gene expression in fruitfly embryos suggest that the great majority of these newly discovered motifs represent functional regulatory elements. In addition to providing an initial motif dictionary for one of the most intensively studied model organisms, this work provides an analytical framework for the comprehensive discovery of regulatory motifs in complex animal genomes.