Enhancers play a central role in cell-type-specific gene expression and are marked by H3K4me1/2. Active enhancers are further marked by H3K27ac. However, the methyltransferases responsible for H3K4me1/2 on enhancers remain elusive. Furthermore, how these enzymes function on enhancers to regulate cell-type-specific gene expression is unclear. In this study, we identify MLL4 (KMT2D) as a major mammalian H3K4 mono- and di-methyltransferase with partial functional redundancy with MLL3 (KMT2C). Using adipogenesis and myogenesis as model systems, we show that MLL4 exhibits cell-type- and differentiation-stage-specific genomic binding and is predominantly localized on enhancers. MLL4 co-localizes with lineage-determining transcription factors (TFs) on active enhancers during differentiation. Deletion of Mll4 markedly decreases H3K4me1/2, H3K27ac, Mediator and Polymerase II levels on enhancers and leads to severe defects in cell-type-specific gene expression and cell differentiation. Together, these findings identify MLL4 as a major mammalian H3K4 mono- and di-methyltransferase essential for enhancer activation during cell differentiation.
Almost every cell in a human body carries the same genes, but not every cell will express all of these genes as proteins. As different types of cells, such as brain, liver, fat or muscle cells, develop, they will express different genes; or they will express the same genes, but at different times and in different amounts. Enhancers are short stretches of DNA that boost the amount of protein that is produced when a gene is expressed, and they are particularly important for those genes that are expressed differently between cell types.
Enhancers bolster expression of a gene by interacting with the DNA nearby. Even genes separated from enhancers by a long stretches of DNA can benefit because the way that DNA is tightly packed inside the nucleus means that two distant sequences can actually end up close together. Proteins called transcription factors will bind to enhancers and recruit the cell’s protein ‘machinery’ required to express nearby genes. Enhancers can be identified by specific chemical marks associated with their DNA, but little is known about the enzymes that leave these marks in mammals. Moreover, it is not clear which genes are influenced by these marks.
Now, by examining fat cells and muscle cells as they mature, Lee et al. have found that an enzyme called MLL4 is responsible for adding chemical marks to enhancers in both humans and mice. Further, MLL4 is required both to allow cells to specialize into different cell types, and to boost the expression of genes that are specific to each type of mature cells. Since faulty MLL4 has been implicated in several cancers and developmental defects, the findings of Lee et al. may lead to a better understanding of these diseases.