We present the first gene regulatory network (GRN) that pertains to post-developmental gene expression. Specifically, we mapped a transcription regulatory network of Caenorhabditis elegans metabolic gene promoters using gene-centered yeast one-hybrid assays. We found that the metabolic GRN is enriched for nuclear hormone receptors (NHRs) compared with other gene-centered regulatory networks, and that these NHRs organize into functional network modules.The NHR family has greatly expanded in nematodes; C. elegans has 284 NHRs, whereas humans have only 48. We show that the NHRs in the metabolic GRN have metabolic phenotypes, suggesting that they do not simply function redundantly.The mediator subunit MDT-15 preferentially interacts with NHRs that occur in the metabolic GRN.We describe an NHR circuit that responds to nutrient availability and propose a model for the evolution and organization of NHRs in C. elegans metabolic regulatory networks.
Physical and/or regulatory interactions between transcription factors (TFs) and their target genes are essential to establish body plans of multicellular organisms during development, and these interactions have been studied extensively in the context of GRNs. The precise control of differential gene expression is also of critical importance to maintain physiological homeostasis, and many metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes coincide with substantial changes in gene expression. Much work has focused on the GRNs that control metazoan development; however, the design principles and organization of the GRNs that control systems physiology remain largely unexplored.
In this study, we present the first gene-centered GRN that includes ∼70 genes involved in C. elegans metabolism and physiology, 100 TFs and more than 500 protein–DNA interactions between them. The resulting metabolic GRN is enriched for NHRs, compared with other gene-centered regulatory networks. NHRs are well-known regulators of lipid meta-qj;bolism in mammals. The transcriptional activity of NHRs can be modified by diffusible ligands, which allows these TFs to function as molecular sensors and rapidly alter the expression of their target genes. Interestingly, NHRs comprise the largest family of TFs in nematodes; the C. elegans genome encodes 284 NHRs, most of which are uncharacterized. Furthermore, their organization in GRNs has not yet been investigated. In our study, we show that the C. elegans NHRs that we retrieved in the metabolic GRN organize into network modules, and that most of these NHRs function to maintain lipid homeostasis in the nematode. Interestingly, network modularity has been proposed to facilitate rapid and robust changes in gene expression. Our results suggest that the C. elegans metabolic GRN may have evolved by combining NHR family expansion with the specific modular wiring of NHRs to enable the rapid adaptation of the animal to different environmental cues.
NHRs can interact with transcriptional cofactors such as chromatin remodeling complexes and Mediator components. For instance, the C. elegans Mediator subunit, MDT-15, can interact with NHR-49 to regulate the expression of its target genes. To find all the TFs that MDT-15 can interact with, we performed systematic yeast two-hybrid assays with MDT-15 versus 755 full-length TFs. We found that MDT-15 preferentially associates with NHRs, and specifically with those NHRs that confer a metabolic phenotype and that occur in the metabolic GRN. This illustrates the central role of MDT-15 in the regulation of metabolic gene expression.
Using a variety of genetic and biochemical approaches, we characterized NHR-86 in more detail. NHR-86 participates in one of the two NHR modules, and has a high-flux capacity; that is it has both a high incoming and a high outgoing degree. We obtained an nhr-86 mutant and generated an NHR-86 antibody, and showed that NHR-86 functions as an auto-repressor in vivo and that nhr-86 mutant animals store abnormally high levels of body fat.
Finally, we discovered a novel NHR circuit that responds to nutrient availability. In this circuit NHR-45 regulates the activity of nhr-178 promoter in two distinct physiologically important tissues: the intestine and the hypodermis. Both of these NHRs are required to maintain lipid homeostasis in C. elegans. The expression of nhr-178 is responsive to the nutritional status of the animal, which switches between ON and OFF states in the hypodermis. We found that NHR-45 activity is necessary to control this switch in the hypodermis. Interestingly, NHR-45 has opposite effects on the activity of the nhr-178 promoter in these tissues: NHR-45 activates this promoter in the intestine, but represses it in the hypodermis.
Altogether our study leads to a model in which the expansion of the NHR family, TFs that have the capacity to act as fast molecular sensors, is combined with a modular network organization to enable rapid and robust responses to various environmental cues.
Gene regulatory networks (GRNs) provide insights into the mechanisms of differential gene expression at a systems level. GRNs that relate to metazoan development have been studied extensively. However, little is still known about the design principles, organization and functionality of GRNs that control physiological processes such as metabolism, homeostasis and responses to environmental cues. In this study, we report the first experimentally mapped metazoan GRN of Caenorhabditis elegans metabolic genes. This network is enriched for nuclear hormone receptors (NHRs). The NHR family has greatly expanded in nematodes: humans have 48 NHRs, but C. elegans has 284, most of which are uncharacterized. We find that the C. elegans metabolic GRN is highly modular and that two GRN modules predominantly consist of NHRs. Network modularity has been proposed to facilitate a rapid response to different cues. As NHRs are metabolic sensors that are poised to respond to ligands, this suggests that C. elegans GRNs evolved to enable rapid and adaptive responses to different cues by a concurrence of NHR family expansion and modular GRN wiring.