Gene Families

The Interactive Fly

Zygotically transcribed genes

Antennapedia and Bithorax Complexes

Intergenic transcription through a bithorax-complex polycomb group response element counteracts silencing

Interactions among Polycomb domains are guided by chromosome architecture

Competition for cofactor-dependent DNA binding underlies Hox phenotypic suppression

Polarized regulatory landscape and Wnt responsiveness underlie Hox activation in embryos

Chromatin accessibility plays a key role in selective targeting of Hox proteins

In vivo Hox binding specificity revealed by systematic changes to a single cis regulatory module

Deep learning connects DNA traces to transcription to reveal predictive features beyond enhancer-promoter contact

Boundaries mediate long-distance interactions between enhancers and promoters in the Drosophila Bithorax complex

Transcriptional Readthrough Interrupts Boundary Function in Drosophila

In-Depth Annotation of the Drosophila Bithorax-Complex Reveals the Presence of Several Alternative ORFs That Could Encode for Motif-Rich Peptides

Visceral organ morphogenesis via calcium-patterned muscle constrictions

CRISPR/Cas9 and FLP-FRT mediated regulatory dissection of the BX-C of Drosophila melanogasters

The Drosophila Fab-7 boundary modulates Abd-B gene activity by guiding an inversion of collinear chromatin organization and alternate promoter use

Specification of the Drosophila Orcokinin A neurons by combinatorial coding

A bioinformatics screen reveals Hox and chromatin remodeling factors at the Drosophila histone locus

Genome organization controls transcriptional dynamics during development

Transcriptional read through interrupts boundary function in Drosophila

Genes of the Antennapedia complex

Genes of the bithorax complex
Cofactors for Hox complex genes

'Homeobox' antennapedia-type protein signature

The six Drosophila proteins that belong to the antennapedia-type Homeobox subfamily are Antennapedia (ANTP), Abdominal-A (ABD-A), Deformed (DFD), Proboscipedia (PB), Sex combs reduced (SCR) and Ultrabithorax (UBX). The ExPASy World Wide Web (WWW) molecular biology server of the Geneva University Hospital and the University of Geneva provides extensive documentation for the'Homeobox' antennapedia-type protein signature.

Intergenic transcription through a bithorax-complex polycomb group response element counteracts silencing

Polycomb group response elements (PREs) mediate the mitotic inheritance of gene expression programs and thus maintain determined cell fates. By default, PREs silence associated genes via the targeting of Polycomb group (PcG) complexes. Upon an activating signal, however, PREs recruit counteracting trithorax group (trxG) proteins, which in turn maintain target genes in a transcriptionally active state. Using a transgenic reporter system, it was shown that the switch from the silenced to the activated state of a PRE requires noncoding transcription. Continuous transcription through the PRE induced by an actin promoter prevents the establishment of PcG-mediated silencing. The maintenance of epigenetic activation requires transcription through the PRE to proceed at least until embryogenesis is completed. At the homeotic bithorax complex of Drosophila, intergenic PRE transcripts can be detected not only during embryogenesis, but also at late larval stages, suggesting that transcription through endogenous PREs is required continuously as an anti-silencing mechanism to prevent the access of repressive PcG complexes to the chromatin. Furthermore, all other PREs outside the homeotic complex tested were found to be transcribed in the same tissue as the mRNA of the corresponding target gene, suggesting that anti-silencing by transcription is a fundamental aspect of the cellular memory system (Schmitt, 2005; full text of article).

Intergenic transcription in the BX-C has a profound phenotypic effect on the expression of the Hox genes. The results with transgenes suggest that the spatially and temporally regulated transcription of noncoding RNAs in the BX-C induces a remodeling of the chromatin, thereby preventing PcG-mediated silencing. The consequence of this is the segment-specific activation of the Hox genes. This is probably especially important in large gene complexes where PREs are located at long distances from the promoters they regulate. It has been shown that the activation of a minimal 219-bp Fab-7 PRE is not accompanied by transcription through the element. However, in this case the minimal PRE was juxtaposed to the promoter, probably benefiting from the open chromatin environment induced by the bound transcription factors. Other results indicate that an 870-bp large Fab-7 PRE, under similar conditions but containing more PcG protein-binding sites, cannot be activated anymore. This suggests that over a certain threshold level of silencing, imposed by the stability of the silencing complexes, chromatin remodeling by transcription is required to remove PcG complexes in order to counteract their silencing activity in a mitotically heritable fashion (Schmitt, 2005).

Hox cluster regulation is only part of the entire PcG/trxG memory system, prompting an analysis of the transcription pattern of characterized en and predicted salm, slou, and tll target genes as well as their respective PRE sequences. RNA in situ hybridizations reveal that these sequences are also transcribed in a pattern that reflects the expression of the cognate target genes. This suggests that the mechanism of epigenetic activation of PREs initially described for the homeotic gene clusters may be required for the regulation of many more PcG target genes than previously thought. Transcription through these PREs can be either uni- (tll PRE) or bidirectional (en, slou, and salm PREs), further suggesting that the induction of epigenetic activation relies on the remodeling of chromatin induced by the transcriptional process, rather than by the noncoding RNAs (Schmitt, 2005).

With the transgenic reporter system, it was shown that the constitutive transcription through the Fab-7 PRE from the actin5c promoter results in the stable epigenetic activation of this element. This raises the question of how this could be achieved mechanistically. As has been proposed for the developmental regulation of globin gene expression and the regulation of VDJH-recombination in mice, the opening of the chromatin structure at a transcribed PRE may be induced by the passing of the transcriptional machinery through the regulatory sequence. It has been shown that the elongating RNA polymerase II complex is associated with the SWI/SNF remodeling complex and a histone acetyl transferase activity. Such enzymatic activities linked with the transcription machinery may catalyze the epigenetic modification of chromatin (Schmitt, 2005).

In this respect, it is interesting to note that most of the trxG mutants were initially uncovered as suppressors of the Pc phenotype, and that the combination of PcG with trxG mutations can restore the typical phenotype of the single mutations to wild type. The molecular mechanism behind this antagonism is not clear. Using clonal analysis, it has been shown that the trxG proteins Ash1 and Trx do not function as coactivators of Hox gene expression, but that they are required as anti-repressors to prevent PcG-induced silencing. In contrast, the Brahma complex containing the trxG proteins Brm, Osa, and Mor to acts as a coactivator of transcription, and a subset of trxG genes encode components of the Mediator complex. The finding that transcription through Fab-7 induces the epigenetic activation of this PRE may explain how trxG complexes involved in more general transcriptional processes antagonize the establishment of PcG silencing (Schmitt, 2005).

Interestingly, in budding yeast, intergenic transcription through a promoter has been shown to prevent the binding of a transcriptional activator to its target sequences. It is possible that, in a similar fashion, the transcription through PREs may lead to the displacement of repressive PcG complexes from the chromatin and/or the prevention of PcG recruitment to the PRE in the first place. Enzymatic activities carried by the RNA polymerase II complex may subsequently or in addition modify histones at PREs with positive epigenetic marks like acetyl or methyl moieties. Interestingly, has been shown that the sequential induction of HoxB gene expression in mouse embryonic stem (ES) cells by retinoic acid correlates with the orchestrated looping out of this locus from chromosome territories. This indicates that, in addition to locus-wide changes in the chromatin structure such as histone modifications, the transcriptional activity of genes may be regulated by an additional order of complexity. It is possible that, in addition to inducing 'small-scale' changes in the chromatin structure, transcription through PREs may lead to a subnuclear relocation of the target gene locus from a repressive into a transcriptionally permissive environment (Schmitt, 2005).

Removal or inhibition of binding of PcG silencing complexes to PREs by tissue-specific transcription appears to be an attractive mechanism to counteract the constant pressure of the repressive system acting by default. However, with such a solution, the problem of epigenetic maintenance is simply moved to another level, since the question arises of what prevents the intergenic transcription from being silenced by the PcG. The simple answer -- promoters of noncoding transcripts are not sensitive to PcG/PRE silencing -- is probably not valid. Noncoding transcripts of the BX-C are activated by the same set of early segmentation genes as the Hox protein encoding mRNAs. As such, their subsequent regulation might be subjected to the same regimen of factors as the protein-encoding transcripts. However, the problem of transcriptional memory might be reduced to the problem of how to inhibit PcG silencing in particular cells/tissues, while the rest will be down-regulated by default (Schmitt, 2005).

With the processive transcription as the central issue, the cell cycle might become an important factor for the maintenance of active transcription. In Drosophila, PcG proteins dissociate from the chromosomes at mitosis. Thus, if after mitosis intergenic transcription starts before PcG proteins rebind to the PREs, the chromatin would be turned into an active mode, and would thus be protected from PcG-mediated silencing until the next round of cell division. At this point, it remains an open question whether continuous transcription of noncoding RNAs is required throughout the cell cycle to prevent the PcG complexes from rebinding, or whether the initial setting of positive epigenetic marks by the early transcription process is sufficient to prevent silencing during interphase. This proposed mechanism further reduces the problem of how transcriptional activity is maintained to the problem of how only a positive epigenetic mark is maintained during DNA replication and mitosis. Here, recent advances in studies of histone variants propose some attractive candidate marks. In particular, the histone variant H3.3 associated with the transcription of active genes could be envisaged as a possible positive signal that is locally maintained and propagated at cell division. As has been suggested before, targeted deposition of the H3.3 variant at sites of active transcription may serve to remove repressive epigenetic marks such as methylation. The establishment of stable PcG silencing complexes not only requires a sequence component, but is also accompanied by the methylation of K9 and K27 of histone H3. In contrast, positive marks, which have been shown to be mainly associated with H3.3 compared to H3, would be specifically enriched at a transcribed PRE and transmitted through mitosis. After cell division, these epigenetic marks may then in turn provide a platform for noncoding transcription through the PRE early in the cell cycle, which itself may re-establish the full active chromatin environment, unsuitable for PcG protein binding and silencing. Additionally, the reported result that an activated PRE is still maintained over a certain period after transcription has ceased (by removal of the promoter by the inducible Cre recombinase) suggests that this positive epigenetic signal is quite stable and is only diluted out by multiple cell divisions (Schmitt, 2005).

In summary, it is proposed that transcriptional maintenance during development by the PcG/trxG system is primarily a process of preventing PcG silencing to occur at those target genes that need to be maintained active in a defined cell lineage. The advantage of this mode of action is that a positive epigenetic mark, surviving DNA replication and mitosis, is sufficient to ensure stable and heritable maintenance of gene expression patterns, since the silenced mode is created by default. As such, transcription of intergenic sequences would serve as an anti-silencing mechanism that would continually counteract the initiation of this PcG-mediated silencing. In the future, it will be important to pursue the involvement of the various trxG components in the establishment and maintenance of regulatory transcription mechanisms and to analyze the link to cell cycle control and the identity and propagation of the positive epigenetic marks required to sustain active transcription (Schmitt, 2005).

Interactions among Polycomb domains are guided by chromosome architecture

Polycomb group (PcG) proteins bind and regulate hundreds of genes. Previous evidence has suggested that long-range chromatin interactions may contribute to the regulation of PcG target genes. This study adapted the Chromosome Conformation Capture on Chip (4C) assay to systematically map chromosomal interactions in Drosophila melanogaster larval brain tissue. The results demonstrate that PcG target genes interact extensively with each other in nuclear space. These interactions are highly specific for PcG target genes, because non-target genes with either low or high expression show distinct interactions. Notably, interactions are mostly limited to genes on the same chromosome arm, and it was demonstrated that a topological rather than a sequence-based mechanism is responsible for this constraint. These results demonstrate that many interactions among PcG target genes exist and that these interactions are guided by overall chromosome architecture (Tolhuis, 2011).

This study successfully adapted the 4C method to systematically map long-range chromatin contacts with limited material from a single fly tissue. With this method, interactions were detect between the ANT-C and BX-C in central brain. This observation is in good agreement with earlier microscopic reports, underscoring the strength of the method. Importantly, it was further demonstrated that not only the two Homeotic gene clusters, but also many other PcG target genes interact, suggesting that long-range chromatin contacts between PcDs are common in central brain tissue. The control fragments (wntD, CG5107, Crc, and RpII140), which do not reside in PcDs, have interactions that are distinct from PcDs, emphasizing the specificity of the findings (Tolhuis, 2011).

PcG targets show a strong preference for interaction with other PcG targets, suggesting that PcG proteins help to establish these interactions. This is in line with earlier in vivo and in vitro results that indicated that PcG proteins can keep certain DNA sequences together. However, interactions among PcG target genes are constrained by overall chromosome architecture, because the data demonstrate that loci need to be on the same chromosome arm for efficient interaction (Tolhuis, 2011).

Discrete interaction domains (DIDs) range in size from 6 to 600 kb, with an average of ~170 kb. Thus, highly local strong enrichments are found as well as moderate enrichments over larger regions, which may reflect different types of long-range interactions. It is emphasized that interactions as detected by 4C technically represent events of molecular proximity of DNA sequences, and not necessarily physical binding. Based on the current data it is therefore not possible to identify within the DIDs sequence elements that may mediate direct contact with other DIDs. It is conceivable that contacts between PcDs may occur at any position within the PcDs; if PcG protein complexes have an intrinsic propensity to aggregate, as has been observed in vitro, then large PcDs may have a higher chance of interacting with each other due to their larger ‘sticky’ surface area (Tolhuis, 2011).

The 4C method is a cell population based assay that only detects the most frequent interactions in the population. Previous 4C studies in mammalian cells suggested an extensive network of long-range interactions. The current data also suggests an extensive network among interacting PcDs. However, microscopic studies in mammalian cells revealed that specific long-range interactions occur only in a small proportion of the cells. Likewise, only a proportion of D. melanogaster cells show contacts between the two Homeotic clusters. Therefore, 4C data have to be carefully interpreted, because the identified interactions are in part stochastic and do not all occur simultaneously. As a consequence, it is not known how many PcDs interact in a single cell, but the most common interactions are known in the population of larval brain cells (Tolhuis, 2011).

Interphase chromosomes in most eukaryotes occupy distinct 'territories' inside the nucleus, with only a limited degree of intermingling. Although some studies have reported interactions between some loci that are on two different chromosomes (interchromosomal), unbiased 4C mapping in mouse tissues has indicated that interactions within the same chromosome (intrachromosomal) occur much more frequently than between different chromosomes. In addition, a recent genome-wide map of chromatin interactions in human cells showed that intrachromosomal interactions occur with higher frequency than interchromosomal contacts. The current data are in agreement with these observations, and show that most interactions are even limited to single chromosome arms, at least in D. melanogaster larval brain. Since the experiments indicate that a topological mechanism prevents interactions between the two arms of a chromosome, it is proposed that each arm (rather than the chromosome as a whole) forms a distinct territory. This is consistent with early microscopy studies of chromosome architecture in D. melanogaster, which suggested that chromosome arms are units of spatial organization (Tolhuis, 2011).

What topological mechanism may limit contacts between the two chromosome arms? About ~16 Mbp of pericentric heterochromatin are located in between the two euchromatic arms of chromosome 3. This heterochromatin region could act as a long spacer and prevent efficient interactions between DNA fragments that are located on either chromosome arm. However, the data show that interactions within one arm can span even longer distances, such as between Ptx1 and grn (~22.7 Mbp). Another explanation may be that the pericentric regions of all chromosomes assemble into a nuclear compartment, called chromocenter. This large structure could physically obstruct interactions between chromosome arms (Tolhuis, 2011).

Previous reports have demonstrated that certain PcG-bound PREs can pair in trans (i.e. when they are located on different chromosomes). First, a Fab7 PRE-element integrated on the X chromosome (Fab-X) was often found in close spatial proximity to the endogenous Fab-7 in the BX-C (chromosome 3R), although this phenomenon appears to be tissue-specific and dependent on the transgene integration site. Second, a microscopy assay based on Lac repressor/operator recognition showed that the Mcp PRE-element is able to pair with copies of that same element inserted at remote sites in the genome either in cis (i.e. when they are located on the same chromosome) or in trans. The 4C experiments also identified cases of trans interactions between endogenous loci, although they occur with low frequency (approximately 5% occurs in trans) (Tolhuis, 2011).

Although rare, such interactions between loci on different chromosome arms are of interest, because they indicate that the topological constraints imposed by chromosome architecture can in principle be overcome. In mammalian cells, there is evidence that the relative position of a gene locus within its chromosome territory (CT) influences its ability to form either cis- or trans-interactions. Peripheral regions of mammalian CTs intermingle their chromatin, which may allow for interactions between chromosomes. Indeed, more trans contacts are identified by 4C using a bait that often resides in the CT periphery compared to a bait located in the interior of a CT. Likewise, activation of the HoxB gene cluster during differentiation coincides with relocation away from its CT interior, and the active HoxB1 gene more frequently contacts sequences on other chromosomes compared to the inactive gene. In line with this, a varying degree of trans interactions are observed among eight bait sequences, suggesting distinct capacities to contact chromatin on other chromosomes. The trh gene has the strongest capacity to contact other chromosome arms. Interestingly, trh is located within 500 Kbp of the telomere of chromosome 3L, and 5 out of 6 contacts in trans occur within 500 Kbp of other telomeres. Thus, interactions between chromosome arms may be possible if loci are favorably positioned on the edge of chromosome (arm) territories, which could be the case for telomeric sequences in larval brain cells (Tolhuis, 2011).

The experiments with strain In(3LR)sep showed dramatic changes in interactions, such as loss of contacts between the Homeotic gene clusters and gain of contacts with other PcDs. Despite these changed interactions, no convincing evidence was found for global gene expression alterations on the In(3LR)sep chromosome. This raises the question: how relevant are long-range chromatin contacts between PcG-target genes for regulation of expression?

The lack of detectable expression changes may indicate that long-range interactions have only quantitatively subtle effect on the regulation of gene expression. Nevertheless, such subtle effects on gene expression could be very important for long-term viability and species survival. In(3LR)sep animals do suffer from an overall reduced viability during several stages of development, which may indicate a generally reduced fitness, possibly due to a dimly altered regulation of gene expression (Tolhuis, 2011).

Alternatively, PcG gene regulation may not be affected in strain In(3LR)sep, because Abd-B and Antp, although they no longer interact with each other, still prefer to interact with other PcDs, suggesting that it is not relevant which PcDs interact. In such a model, the complement of all interactions contributes to PcG-mediated gene silencing in a population of cells (Tolhuis, 2011).

Finally, it is interesting to note that over ~100 million years of evolution of the Drosophila genus, exchange of genes between chromosome arms has been rare despite extensive rearrangements within each arm. Chromosome arm territories ensure that genes within a single arm are relatively close compared to genes on other arms, which may have resulted in an increased chance of rearrangements within one arm. Alternatively, the importance of long-range interactions among sets of genes, which are topologically limited to the same arm, may have contributed to the selective pressure that has led to this remarkable conservation of the gene complement of each chromosome arm (Tolhuis, 2011).

Competition for cofactor-dependent DNA binding underlies Hox phenotypic suppression

Hox transcription factors exhibit an evolutionarily conserved functional hierarchy, termed phenotypic suppression, in which the activity of posterior Hox proteins dominates over more anterior Hox proteins. Using directly regulated Hox targeted reporter genes in Drosophila, this study shows that posterior Hox proteins suppress the activities of anterior ones by competing for cofactor-dependent DNA binding. Furthermore, a motif in the posterior Hox protein Abdominal-A (AbdA) was identified that is required for phenotypic suppression and facilitates cooperative DNA binding with the Hox cofactor Extradenticle (Exd). Together, these results suggest that Hox-specific motifs endow posterior Hox proteins with the ability to dominate over more anterior ones via a cofactor-dependent DNA-binding mechanism (Noro, 2011).

fkh250 is a 37-base-pair (bp) element from the forkhead (fkh) gene, which is directly regulated by Scr; it contains a single Hox-Exd-binding site that, compared with other Hox-Exd heterodimers, is preferentially bound by Scr-Exd in vitro (Ryoo, 1999). When lacZ is placed under the control of fkh250, fkh250-lacZ is specifically expressed in PS2 in an exd- and Scr-dependent manner. Indeed, misexpression of Scr throughout the Drosophila embryo can ectopically activate fkh250-lacZ. Notably, ectopic activation of fkh250-lacZ occurs even in the abdomen, in the presence of endogenous, more posterior Hox (Noro, 2011).

In contrast to fkh250, fkh250CON (for 'consensus') is an artificial variant of fkh250 with two base pair substitutions that enable fkh250CON-lacZ to be directly regulated by four Hox genes in an exd-dependent manner: Scr, Antp, and Ubx activate this reporter in PS2-PS6, while AbdA represses it in abdominal segments (Ryoo, 1999). Consistent with its relaxed specificity in vivo, fkh250CON binds well to Scr-Exd, Antp-Exd, Ubx-Exd, and AbdA-Exd heterodimers in vitro. The promiscuous binding and regulation by multiple Hox proteins classifies fkh250CON as a shared Hox target gene, while the Scr-specific regulation of and binding to fkh250 suggests that it is a specific Hox target gene (Mann, 2009; Noro, 2011).

Because of their distinct specificities, fkh250-lacZ and fkh250CON-lacZ provide an ideal system to examine the molecular mechanism of phenotypic suppression. In accordance with the premise of posterior dominance, coexpression of Scr and AbdA throughout the fly embryo leads to repression of fkh250CON-lacZ by AbdA. Note that both fkh250 and fkh250CON-lacZ require direct binding by the Hox cofactor Exd. The primary distinction between these two readouts is that AbdA-Exd binds well to fkh250CON but not to fkh250. Accordingly, it is concluded that AbdA cannot suppress the activities of Scr if it cannot bind to the target element. Furthermore, in this system, posterior dominance cannot be mediated by miR activity or competition for factors, such as Exd, off DNA. Rather, these data support a model in which competition for cofactor-dependent DNA binding underlies phenotypic suppression for shared Hox target genes (Noro, 2011).

If AbdA is outcompeting Scr for binding to fkh250CON, AbdA would be expected to have a higher affinity for this sequence compared with Scr. To test this prediction, the affinities of AbdA-Exd and Scr-Exd heterodimers for fkh250CON were measured in vitro. AbdA-Exd heterodimers bound more than twofold more tightly to fkh250CON compared with Scr-Exd. Thus, at the same concentration, AbdA-Exd is more likely than Scr-Exd to be bound to fkh250CON, consistent with the idea that competition depends on cofactor-dependent DNA binding (Noro, 2011).

Binding to fkh250CON is Exd-dependent for both AbdA and Scr, implying that AbdA has domains that allow higher binding affinity with Exd to this target site. In general, Hox interactions with Exd are mediated by the highly conserved, four-amino-acid motif YPWM, which directly binds to a hydrophobic pocket established by the three-amino-acid loop extension (TALE) in the Exd homeodomain (Mann, 2009). For some Hox proteins, the YPWM-TALE interaction is necessary and sufficient for cooperative DNA binding with Exd and target gene regulation in vivo (Joshi, 2010). In addition to the YPWM motif, AbdA, but not Scr, has a second well-conserved tryptophan-containing motif, TDWM, which could play a role in mediating AbdA-Exd interactions. However, when a mutant form of AbdA in which both the YPWM and TDWM motifs are mutated to alanines (2WAla) was coexpressed with Scr in the phenotypic suppression assay, fkh250CON-lacZ was repressed to the same extent as by wild-type AbdA. Thus, although the YPWM and TDWM may contribute to interactions with Exd, these motifs are not necessary for AbdA to dominate over Scr (Noro, 2011).

Immediately C-terminal to its homeodomain, AbdA contains a so-called UbdA motif, a nine-amino-acid sequence also present in Ubx, which has been suggested to mediate cooperative binding with Exd to some DNA sequences (Merabet, 2007). In fact, UbdA is part of a larger 23-residue conserved region adjacent to the AbdA homeodomain, which is referred to as the UR motif (for UbdA-RRDR). To determine whether this or other regions in the C-tail of AbdA are involved in mediating phenotypic suppression, a series of C-terminal truncations were tested for their ability to compete with Scr for the repression of fkh250CON-lacZ in vivo. All AbdA variants were epitope-tagged, allowing use of transgenes that express at similar levels (Noro, 2011).

AbdA's ability to compete with Scr for fkh250CON regulation is eliminated when the entire C terminus is removed (ΔC197). Adding back only the UR motif partially restores AbdA's ability to dominate over Scr (ΔC220). Consistently, an internal deletion that removes most of the UR motif (Δ200-220) exhibits a reduced ability to repress fkh250CON-lacZ. No additional loss of repressive activity is displayed by an AbdA variant in which both the YPWM and TDWM motifs are mutated in combination with this internal deletion (2WAlaΔ200-220). Additional sequences in the C-tail of AbdA may account for the residual activity of variants lacking the UR motif (Δ200-220 and 2WAlaΔ200-220). All AbdA variants used in this study are capable of repressing the exd-independent target gene spalt in the wing imaginal disc, confirming that these mutants are still functional transcription factors. Furthermore, these mutants retain the ability to repress gene expression in vivo, arguing that AbdA's repressive activity is not sufficient to account for its ability to dominate Scr. Together, these data highlight the importance of the UR motif for phenotypic suppression (Noro, 2011).

The above data show that the UR motif is required for AbdA to compete with Scr in vivo. To test the hypothesis that UR carries out this function by facilitating cooperative DNA binding with Exd, the ability of the truncated AbdA variants to bind fkh250CON in complex with Exd was analyzed. In general, the results correlate with the in vivo phenotypic suppression assay: Those mutants that failed to suppress Scr's ability to activate fkh250CON-lacZ (ΔC197, Δ200-220, and 2WAlaΔ200-220) were severely compromised in binding fkh250CON with Exd in vitro. Together, these data strongly suggest that cooperative DNA binding with Exd is required for phenotypic suppression and that domains unique to AbdA are critical for its ability to dominate over Scr. More specifically, they argue that AbdA's UR motif is necessary for cooperative binding of AbdA and Exd to fkh250CON and that the YPWM and TDWM motifs are not sufficient to mediate this interaction on this binding site. The insufficiency of the YPWM motifs to mediate cooperative binding with Exd has been observed for other Hox proteins, suggesting that the use of paralog-specific motifs such as UR may be a general phenomenon (Noro, 2011).

To test the generality of AbdA's dependency on its UR motif for posterior dominance, the same AbdA variants were analyzed for their ability to suppress the activity of the thoracic Hox protein Antp in the patterning of the larval epidermis. When ectopically expressed, Antp transforms the head and first thoracic segment (T1) toward the identity of the second thoracic segment (T2), where Antp is normally expressed). In contrast, when AbdA is ectopically expressed, the head and thorax acquire abdominal segmental identities. Consistent with the rules of phenotypic suppression, wild-type AbdA is able to produce this transformation even in the presence of exogenous Antp. However, similar to the results with fkh250CON-lacZ, AbdA mutants that are compromised in their ability to cooperatively bind DNA with Exd (e.g., ΔC197, Δ200-220, and 2WAlaΔ200-220) fail to suppress the activity of Antp (Noro, 2011).

Taken together, these data support a model in which phenotypic suppression depends on a competition for cofactor-dependent DNA binding. It follows that this mechanism would only apply to readouts that depend on regulatory elements that are targeted by multiple Hox proteins. For example, ectopic Scr can activate fkh and other target genes required for salivary gland development in more posterior segments, illustrating that this Hox-specific function does not obey phenotypic suppression. Furthermore, it is particularly noteworthy that, compared with the anterior Hox protein Scr, AbdA has additional motifs that facilitate complex formation with Exd on DNA. These data suggest that when phenotypic suppression is observed, the more posterior Hox proteins may have a higher affinity for shared binding sites; this higher affinity is a consequence of the quantity and quality of motifs that mediate cooperative DNA binding with Exd. It is speculated that these motifs may be used differently at different target genes and binding sites. It is suggested that the YPWM motif provides a common, basal level of interaction between Hox proteins and Exd. In the context of Hox-specific regulatory elements, this motif may be sufficient to enable Hox-Exd regulation of some target genes. In contrast, in the context of shared enhancers and when multiple Hox proteins are coexpressed, additional, paralog-specific motifs present in the more posterior Hox proteins enable tighter binding of Hox-Exd dimers to DNA, leading to more posterior phenotypes. This was shown to be the case for a single shared Hox-Exd enhancer and suggest that the generality of this mechanism for phenotypic suppression will become apparent as more shared and specific targets for Hox proteins are characterized at high resolution (Noro, 2011).

Polarized regulatory landscape and Wnt responsiveness underlie Hox activation in embryos

Sequential 3'-to-5' activation of the Hox gene clusters in early embryos is a most fascinating issue in developmental biology. Neither the trigger nor the regulatory elements involved in the transcriptional initiation of the 3'-most Hox genes have been unraveled in any organism. This study demonstrates that a series of enhancers in the mouse, some of which are Wnt-dependent (see Drosophila Wg), is located within a HoxA 3' subtopologically associated domain (subTAD). This subTAD forms the structural basis for multiple layers of 3'-polarized features, including DNA accessibility and enhancer activation. Deletion of the cassette of Wnt-dependent enhancers proves its crucial role in initial transcription of HoxA at the 3' side of the cluster (Neijts, 2016).

Chromatin accessibility plays a key role in selective targeting of Hox proteins

Hox transcription factors specify segmental diversity along the anterior-posterior body axis in metazoans. While the different Hox family members show clear functional specificity in vivo, they all show similar binding specificity in vitro and a satisfactory understanding of in vivo Hox target selectivity is still lacking. Using transient transfection in Kc167 cells, this study systematically analyze the binding of all eight Drosophila Hox proteins. Hox proteins were found to show considerable binding selectivity in vivo even in the absence of canonical Hox cofactors Extradenticle and Homothorax. Hox binding selectivity is strongly associated with chromatin accessibility, being highest in less accessible chromatin. Individual Hox proteins exhibit different propensities to bind less accessible chromatin, and high binding selectivity is associated with high-affinity binding regions, leading to a model where Hox proteins derive binding selectivity through affinity-based competition with nucleosomes. Extradenticle/Homothorax cofactors generally facilitate Hox binding, promoting binding to regions in less accessible chromatin but with little effect on the overall selectivity of Hox targeting. These cofactors collaborate with Hox proteins in opening chromatin, in contrast to the pioneer factor, Glial cells missing, which facilitates Hox binding by independently generating accessible chromatin regions. These studies indicate that chromatin accessibility plays a key role in Hox selectivity. It is proposed that relative chromatin accessibility provides a basis for subtle differences in binding specificity and affinity to generate significantly different sets of in vivo genomic targets for different Hox proteins (Porcelli, 2019).

In vivo Hox binding specificity revealed by systematic changes to a single cis regulatory module

Hox proteins belong to a family of transcription factors with similar DNA binding specificities that control animal differentiation along the antero-posterior body axis. Hox proteins are expressed in partially overlapping regions where each one is responsible for the formation of particular organs and structures through the regulation of specific direct downstream targets. Thus, explaining how each Hox protein can selectively control its direct targets from those of another Hox protein is fundamental to understand animal development. This study analyzed a cis regulatory module directly regulated by seven different Drosophila Hox proteins and uncovered how different Hox class proteins differentially control its expression. Regulation by one or another Hox protein depends on the combination of three modes: Hox-cofactor dependent DNA-binding specificity; Hox-monomer binding sites; and interaction with positive and negative Hox-collaborator proteins. Additionally, this study found that similar regulation can be achieved by Amphioxus orthologs, suggesting these three mechanisms are conserved from insects to chordates (Sanchez-Higueras, 2019).

Deep learning connects DNA traces to transcription to reveal predictive features beyond enhancer-promoter contact

Chromatin architecture plays an important role in gene regulation. Recent advances in super-resolution microscopy have made it possible to measure chromatin 3D structure and transcription in thousands of single cells. However, leveraging these complex data sets with a computationally unbiased method has been challenging. This study presents a deep learning-based approach to better understand to what degree chromatin structure relates to transcriptional state of individual cells. Furthermore, methods were explored to "unpack the black box" to determine in an unbiased manner which structural features of chromatin regulation are most important for gene expression state. This approach was applied to an Optical Reconstruction of Chromatin Architecture dataset of the Bithorax gene cluster in Drosophila; it was shown to outperforms previous contact-focused methods in predicting expression state from 3D structure. The structural information is distributed across the domain, overlapping and extending beyond domains identified by prior genetic analyses. Individual enhancer-promoter interactions are a minor contributor to predictions of activity (Rajpurkar, 2021).

Boundaries mediate long-distance interactions between enhancers and promoters in the Drosophila Bithorax complex

Drosophila bithorax complex (BX-C) is one of the best model systems for studying the role of boundaries (insulators) in gene regulation. Expression of three homeotic genes, Ubx, abd-A, and Abd-B, is orchestrated by nine parasegment-specific regulatory domains. These domains are flanked by boundary elements, which function to block crosstalk between adjacent domains, ensuring that they can act autonomously. Paradoxically, seven of the BX-C regulatory domains are separated from their gene target by at least one boundary, and must "jump over" the intervening boundaries. To understand the jumping mechanism, the Mcp boundary was replaced with Fab-7 and Fab-8. Mcp is located between the iab-4 and iab-5 domains, and defines the border between the set of regulatory domains controlling abd-A and Abd-B. When Mcp is replaced by Fab-7 or Fab-8, they direct the iab-4 domain (which regulates abd-A) to inappropriately activate Abd-B in abdominal segment A4. For the Fab-8 replacement, ectopic induction was only observed when it was inserted in the same orientation as the endogenous Fab-8 boundary. A similar orientation dependence for bypass activity was observed when Fab-7 was replaced by Fab-8. Thus, boundaries perform two opposite functions in the context of BX-C-they block crosstalk between neighboring regulatory domains, but at the same time actively facilitate long distance communication between the regulatory domains and their respective target genes (Postaka, 2018).

Boundaries flanking the Abd-B regulatory domains must block crosstalk between adjacent regulatory domains but at the same time allow more distal domains to jump over one or more intervening boundaries and activate Abd-B expression. While several models have been advanced to account for these two paradoxical activities, replacement experiments argued that both must be intrinsic properties of the Abd-B boundaries. Thus Fab-7 and Fab-8 have blocking and bypass activities in Fab-7 replacement experiments, while heterologous boundaries including multimerized dCTCF sites and Mcp from BX-C do not. One idea is that Fab-7 and Fab-8 are simply 'permissive' for bypass. They allow bypass to occur, while boundaries like multimerized dCTCF or Mcp are not permissive in the context of Fab-7. Another is that they actively facilitate bypass by directing the distal Abd-B regulatory domains to the Abd-B promoter. Potentially consistent with an 'active' mechanism that involves boundary pairing interactions, the bypass activity of Fab-8 and to a lesser extent Fab-7 is orientation dependent (Postaka, 2018).

In the studies reported it this study have tested these two models further. For this purpose the Mcp boundary was used for in situ replacement experiments. Mcp defines the border between the regulatory domains that control expression of abd-A and Abd-B. In this location, it is required to block crosstalk between the flanking domains iab-4 and iab-5, but it does not need to mediate bypass. In this respect, it differs from the boundaries that are located within the set of regulatory domains that control either abd-A or Abd-B, as these boundaries must have both activities. If bypass were simply passive, insertion of a 'permissive' Fab-7 or Fab-8 boundary in either orientation in place of Mcp would be no different from insertion of a generic 'non-permissive' boundary such as multimerized dCTCF sites. Assuming that Fab-7 and Fab-8 can block crosstalk out of context, they should fully substitute for Mcp. In contrast, if bypass in the normal context involves an active mechanism in which more distal regulatory domains are brought to the Abd-B promoter, then Fab-7 and Fab-8 replacements might also be able to bring iab-4 to the Abd-B promoter in a configuration that activates transcription. If they do so, then this process would be expected to show the same orientation dependence as is observed for bypass of the Abd-B regulatory domains in Fab-7 replacements (Postaka, 2018).

Consistent with the idea that a boundary located at the border between the domains that regulate abd-A and Abd-B need not have bypass activity, it was found that multimerized binding sites for the dCTCF protein fully substitute for Mcp. Like the multimerized dCTCF sites, Fab-7 and Fab-8 are also able to block crosstalk between iab-4 and iab-5. In the case of Fab-7, its' blocking activity is incomplete and there are small clones of cells in which the mini-y reporter is activated in A4. In contrast, the blocking activity of Fab-8 is comparable to the multimerized dCTCF sites and the mini-y reporter is off throughout A4. One plausible reason for this difference is that Mcp and the boundaries flanking Mcp (Fab-4 and Fab-6) utilize dCTCF as does Fab-8, while this architectural protein does not bind to Fab-7 (Postaka, 2018).

Importantly, in spite of their normal (or near normal) ability to block crosstalk, both boundaries still perturb Abd-B regulation. In the case of Fab-8, the misregulation of Abd-B is orientation dependent just like the bypass activity of this boundary when it is used to replace Fab-7. When inserted in the reverse orientation, Fab-8 behaves like multimerized dCTCF sites and it fully rescues the Mcp deletion. In contrast, when inserted in the forward orientation, Fab-8 induces the expression of Abd-B in A4 (PS9), and the misspecification of this parasegment. Unlike classical Mcp deletions or the McpPRE replacement described in this study, expression of the Abd-B gene in PS9 is driven by iab-4, not iab-5. This conclusion is supported by two lines of evidence. First, the mini-y reporter inserted in iab-5 is off in PS9 cells indicating that iab-5 is silenced by PcG factors as it should be in this parasegment. Second, the ectopic expression of Abd-B is eliminated when the iab-4 regulatory domain is inactivated (Postaka, 2018).

These results, taken together with previous studies, support a model in which the chromatin loops formed by Fab-8 inserted at Mcp in the forward orientation brings the enhancers in the iab-4 regulatory domain in close proximity to the Abd-B promoter, leading to the activation of Abd-B in A4 (PS9). In contrast, when inserted in the opposite orientation, the topology of the chromatin loops formed by the ectopic Fab-8 boundary are not compatible with productive interactions between iab-4 and the Abd-B promoter. Moreover, it would appear that boundary bypass for the regulatory domains that control Abd-B expression is not a passive process in which the boundaries are simply permissive for interactions between the regulatory domains and the Abd-B promoter. Instead, it seems to be an active process in which the boundaries are responsible for bringing the regulatory domains into contact with the Abd-B gene. It also seems likely that bypass activity of Fab-8 (and also Fab-7) may have a predisposed preference, namely it is targeted for interactions with the Abd-B gene. This idea would fit with transgene bypass experiments, which showed that both Fab-7 and Fab-8 interacted with an insulator like element upstream of the Abd-B promoter, AB-I, while the Mcp boundary didn't (Postaka, 2018).

Similar conclusions can be drawn from the induction of Abd-B expression in A4 (PS9) when Fab-7 is inserted in place of Mcp. Like Fab-8, this boundary inappropriately targets the iab-4 regulatory domain to Abd-B. Unlike Fab-8, Abd-B is ectopically activated when Fab-7 is inserted in both the forward and reverse orientations. While the effects are milder in the reverse orientation, the lack of pronounced orientation dependence is consistent with experiments in which Fab-7 was inserted at its endogenous location in the reverse orientation. Unlike Fab-8 only very minor iab-6 bypass defects were observed. In addition to the activation of Abd-B in A4 (PS9) the Fab-7 Mcp replacements also alter the pattern of Abd-B regulation in more posterior segments. In the forward orientation, A4 and A5 are transformed towards an A6 identity, while A6 is also misspecified. Similar though somewhat less severe effects are observed in these segments when Fab-7 is inserted in the reverse orientation. At this point the mechanisms responsible for these novel phenotypic effects are uncertain. One possibility is that pairing interactions between the Fab-7 insert and the endogenous Fab-7 boundary disrupt the normal topological organization of the regulatory domains in a manner similar to that seen in boundary competition transgene assays. An alternative possibility is that Fab-7 targets iab-4 to the Abd-B promoter not only in A4 (PS9) but also in cells in A5 (PS10) and A6 (PS11). In this model, Abd-B would be regulated not only by the domain that normally specifies the identity of the parasegment (e.g., iab-5 in PS10), but also by interactions with iab-4. This dual regulation would increase the levels of Abd-B, giving the weak GOF phenotypes. Potentially consistent with this second model, inactivating iab-4 in the McpF8 replacement not only rescues the A4 (PS9) GOF phenotypes but also suppresses the loss of anterior trichomes in the A6 tergite (Postaka, 2018).

Transcriptional Readthrough Interrupts Boundary Function in Drosophila

In higher eukaryotes, distance enhancer-promoter interactions are organized by topologically associated domains, tethering elements, and chromatin insulators/boundaries. While insulators/boundaries play a central role in chromosome organization, the mechanisms regulating their functions are largely unknown. This study has taken advantage of the well-characterized Drosophila bithorax complex (BX-C) to study one potential mechanism for controlling boundary function. The regulatory domains of BX-C are flanked by boundaries, which block crosstalk with their neighboring domains and also support long-distance interactions between the regulatory domains and their target gene. As many lncRNAs have been found in BX-C, this study asked whether readthrough transcription (RT) can impact boundary function. For this purpose, advantage was taken of two BX-C boundary replacement platforms, Fab-7(attP50) and F2(attP), in which the Fab-7 and Fub boundaries, respectively, are deleted and replaced with an attP site. Boundary elements, promoters, and polyadenylation signals arranged in different combinations were introduced and then assayed for boundary function. The results show that RT can interfere with boundary activity. Since lncRNAs represent a significant fraction of Pol II transcripts in multicellular eukaryotes, it is therefore possible that RT may be a widely used mechanism to alter boundary function and regulation of gene expression (Kyrchanova, 2023).

In-Depth Annotation of the Drosophila Bithorax-Complex Reveals the Presence of Several Alternative ORFs That Could Encode for Motif-Rich Peptides

It is recognized that a large proportion of eukaryotic RNAs and proteins is not produced from conventional genes but from short and alternative (alt) open reading frames (ORFs). This study presents an in silico prediction of altORFs by applying several selecting filters based on evolutionary conservation and annotations of previously characterized altORF peptides. This work was performed in the Bithorax-complex (BX-C). Several altORFs could be predicted from coding and non-coding sequences of BX-C. In addition, the selected altORFs encode for proteins that contain several interesting molecular features, such as the presence of transmembrane helices or a general propensity to be rich in short interaction motifs. Of particular interest, one altORF encodes for a protein that contains a peptide sequence found in specific isoforms of two Drosophila Hox proteins. This work thus suggests that several altORF proteins could be produced from a particular genomic region known for its critical role during Drosophila embryonic development. The molecular signatures of these altORF proteins further suggests that several of them could make numerous protein-protein interactions and be of functional importance in vivo (Naville, 2021).

Visceral organ morphogenesis via calcium-patterned muscle constrictions

Organ architecture is often composed of multiple laminar tissues arranged in concentric layers. During morphogenesis, the initial geometry of visceral organs undergoes a sequence of folding, adopting a complex shape that is vital for function. Genetic signals are known to impact form, yet the dynamic and mechanical interplay of tissue layers giving rise to organs' complex shapes remains elusive. This study traced the dynamics and mechanical interactions of a developing visceral organ across tissue layers, from sub-cellular to organ scale in vivo. Combining deep tissue light-sheet microscopy for in toto live visualization with a novel computational framework for multilayer analysis of evolving complex shapes, this study found a dynamic mechanism for organ folding using the embryonic midgut of Drosophila as a model visceral organ. Hox genes, known regulators of organ shape, control the emergence of high-frequency calcium pulses. Spatiotemporally patterned calcium pulses trigger muscle contractions via myosin light chain kinase. Muscle contractions, in turn, induce cell shape change in the adjacent tissue layer. This cell shape change collectively drives a convergent extension pattern. Through tissue incompressibility and initial organ geometry, this in-plane shape change is linked to out-of-plane organ folding. This analysis follows tissue dynamics during organ shape change in vivo, tracing organ-scale folding to a high-frequency molecular mechanism. These findings offer a mechanical route for gene expression to induce organ shape change: genetic patterning in one layer triggers a physical process in the adjacent layer - revealing post-translational mechanisms that govern shape change (Mitchell, 2022).

CRISPR/Cas9 and FLP-FRT mediated regulatory dissection of the BX-C of Drosophila melanogaster

The homeotic genes or Hox define the anterior-posterior (AP) body axis formation in bilaterians and are often present on the chromosome in an order collinear to their function across the AP axis. However, there are many cases wherein the Hox are not collinear, but their expression pattern is conserved across the AP axis. The expression pattern of Hox is attributed to the cis-regulatory modules (CRMs) consisting of enhancers, initiators, or repressor elements that regulate the genes in a segment-specific manner. In the Drosophila melanogaster Hox complex, the bithorax complex (BX-C) and even the CRMs are organized in an order that is collinear to their function in the thoracic and abdominal segments. In the present study, the regulatorily inert regions were targeted using CRISPR/Cas9 to generate a series of transgenic lines with the insertion of FRT sequences. These FRT lines are repurposed to shuffle the CRMs associated with Abd-B to generate modular deletion, duplication, or inversion of multiple CRMs. The rearrangements yielded entirely novel phenotypes in the fly suggesting the requirement of such complex manipulations to address the significance of higher order arrangement of the CRMs. The functional map and the transgenic flies generated in this study are important resources to decipher the collective ability of multiple regulatory elements in the eukaryotic genome to function as complex modules (Hajirnis, 2023).

The Drosophila Fab-7 boundary modulates Abd-B gene activity by guiding an inversion of collinear chromatin organization and alternate promoter use

Hox genes encode transcription factors that specify segmental identities along the anteroposterior body axis. These genes are organized in clusters, where their order corresponds to their activity along the body axis, a feature known as collinearity. In Drosophila, the BX-C cluster contains the three most posterior Hox genes, where their collinear activation incorporates progressive changes in histone modifications, chromatin architecture, and use of boundary elements and cis-regulatory regions. To dissect functional hierarchies, this study compareed chromatin organization in cell lines and larvae, with a focus on the Abd-B gene. This work establishes the importance of the Fab-7 boundary for insulation between 3D domains carrying different histone modifications. Interestingly, a non-canonical inversion of collinear chromatin dynamics was detected at Abd-B, with the domain of active histone modifications progressively decreasing in size. This dynamic chromatin organization differentially activates the alternative promoters of the Abd-B gene, thereby expanding the possibilities for fine-tuning of transcriptional output (Moniot-Perron, 2023).

Specification of the Drosophila Orcokinin A neurons by combinatorial coding

The central nervous system contains a daunting number of different cell types. Understanding how each cell acquires its fate remains a major challenge for neurobiology. The developing embryonic ventral nerve cord (VNC) of Drosophila melanogaster has been a powerful model system for unraveling the basic principles of cell fate specification. This pertains specifically to neuropeptide neurons, which typically are stereotypically generated in discrete subsets, allowing for unambiguous single-cell resolution in different genetic contexts. The specification of the OrcoA-LA neurons, characterized by the expression of the neuropeptide Orcokinin A and located laterally in the A1-A5 abdominal segments of the VNC, was studied. The progenitor neuroblast (NB; NB5-3) and the temporal window (castor/grainyhead) that generate the OrcoA-LA neurons were identified. The role of the Ubx, abd-A, and Abd-B Hox genes in the segment-specific generation of these neurons was studied. Additionally, these results indicate that the OrcoA-LA neurons are "Notch Off" cells, and neither programmed cell death nor the BMP pathway appears to be involved in their specification. Finally, a targeted genetic screen was performed of 485 genes known to be expressed in the CNS and nab, vg, and tsh were identified as crucial determinists for OrcoA-LA neurons. This work provides a new neuropeptidergic model that will allow for addressing new questions related to neuronal specification mechanisms in the future (Rubio-Ferrera, 2023).

A bioinformatics screen reveals Hox and chromatin remodeling factors at the Drosophila histone locus

Cells orchestrate histone biogenesis with strict temporal and quantitative control. To efficiently regulate histone biogenesis, the repetitive Drosophila melanogaster replication-dependent histone genes are arrayed and clustered at a single locus. Regulatory factors concentrate in a nuclear body known as the histone locus body (HLB), which forms around the locus. Historically, HLB factors are largely discovered by chance, and few are known to interact directly with DNA. It is therefore unclear how the histone genes are specifically targeted for unique and coordinated regulation. To expand the list of known HLB factors, a candidate-based screen was performed by mapping 30 publicly available ChIP datasets and 27 factors to the Drosophila histone gene array. Novel transcription factor candidates were identified, including the Drosophila Hox proteins Ultrabithorax, Abdominal-A and Abdominal-B, suggesting a new pathway for these factors in influencing body plan morphogenesis. Additionally, six other transcription factors were identified that target the histone gene array: JIL-1, Hr78, the long isoform of fs(1)h as well as the generalized transcription factors TAF-1, TFIIB, and TFIIF. This foundational screen provides several candidates for future studies into factors that may influence histone biogenesis. Further, this study emphasizes the powerful reservoir of publicly available datasets, which can be mined as a primary screening technique (Hodkinson, 2023).

Genome organization controls transcriptional dynamics during development

Past studies offer contradictory claims for the role of genome organization in the regulation of gene activity. This study shows through high-resolution chromosome conformation analysis that the Drosophila genome is organized by two independent classes of regulatory sequences, tethering elements and insulators. Quantitative live imaging and targeted genome editing demonstrate that this two-tiered organization is critical for the precise temporal dynamics of Hox gene transcription during development. Tethering elements mediate long-range enhancer-promoter interactions and foster fast activation kinetics. Conversely, the boundaries of topologically associating domains (TADs) prevent spurious interactions with enhancers and silencers located in neighboring TADs. These two levels of genome organization operate independently of one another to ensure precision of transcriptional dynamics and the reliability of complex patterning processes (Batut, 2022).

Genome organization is emerging as a potentially important facet of gene regulation. Because transcriptional enhancers often reside far from their target promoters, chromatin folding may guide the timely and specific establishment of regulatory interactions. Although long-range enhancer-promoter contacts are prevalent, it remains unclear whether they actually determine transcriptional activity. Boundary elements partition chromosomes into topologically associating domains (TADs), whose importance for gene regulation remains controversial. There is also an unresolved dichotomy between elements that promote and prevent enhancer-promoter interactions, because CTCF binding sites have been implicated in both. This study shows that distinct classes of regulatory elements mediate these opposing functions genome-wide: Dedicated tethering elements foster appropriate enhancer-promoter interactions and are key to fast activation kinetics, whereas insulators prevent spurious interactions and regulatory interference between neighboring TADs (Batut, 2022).

This study characterized genome organization at single-nucleosome resolution in developing Drosophila embryos using Micro-C. Focus was placed on the critical ~60-min period preceding gastrulation, when the fate map of the embryo is established by localized transcription of a cascade of patterning genes, culminating with the Hox genes that specify segment identity. Analysis of the Antennapedia gene complex (ANT-C), one of two Hox gene clusters and an archetype of regulatory precision, reveals an intricate hierarchical organization. Insulators partition the locus into a series of TADs, whereas tethering elements mediate specific intra-TAD focal contacts between promoters of Scr and Antp and their distal regulatory regions (Batut, 2022).

The Sex combs reduced (Scr) gene, contained within a 90-kb TAD, is regulated by an early embryonic enhancer (Scr EE) located 35 kb upstream of the promoter. This enhancer bypasses an intervening TAD that contains ftz-a highly expressed pair-rule gene-to selectively regulate Scr transcription. A distal tethering element (DTE) situated 6 kb upstream of the enhancer anchors a focal contact with a promoter-proximal tether. These tethering elements correspond to sequences previously shown by reporter assays to modulate enhancer-promoter selectivity. The DTE lacks any intrinsic enhancer activity, suggesting a specific role in fostering long-range enhancer-promoter interactions (Batut, 2022).

Similarly, the Antennapedia (Antp) P1 early enhancer is associated with a DTE directly adjacent to it, which forms a focal interaction with a tethering element near the P1 promoter, 38 kb away. Upon deletion of the DTE, the focal interaction is lost, and enhancer-promoter interactions are disrupted. Antp activation is substantially delayed but transcription levels in active nuclei are normal, and transcription appears to fully recover after this initial lag (Batut, 2022).

These observations show that DTEs specifically determine the dynamics of transcriptional activation in development. This temporal precision may be critical for the programming of cellular identities within stringent developmental windows. It is proposed that tethering elements foster physical interactions between promoters and remote enhancers to prime genes for rapid activation; they may also modulate other aspects of enhancer-promoter communication through interactions with core transcription complexes (Batut, 2022).

In addition to fostering preferential associations with target promoters, DTEs also suppress 'backward' interactions of associated enhancers with distal regions of their TADs. Both effects probably synergize to increase the specificity of enhancer-promoter communication. Although DTE deletions have a strong impact on local genome organization, they have little effect on the overall structure of TADs, suggesting that insulators and tethering elements operate largely independently of one another. To better understand the relationship between long-range enhancer-promoter interactions and TAD structures, this study systematically disrupted each of the TAD boundaries across the Dfd-Scr-Antp interval (Batut, 2022).

Deletion of the Dfd 3' insulator causes a wholesale fusion of the Dfd TAD with the adjacent miR-10 TAD and reduces transcription of the Dfd gene. Notably, it does not appear to weaken interactions between the Dfd promoter and enhancer, suggesting that TAD boundaries play no role in fostering appropriate regulatory interactions. Rather, the 3' insulator specifically prevents inappropriate contacts with the miR-10 regulatory region (Batut, 2022).

The disruption of Scr TAD boundaries is also consistent with this model. Deletion of the Scr 3' insulator is recessive lethal, probably because of the loss of essential 7SL genes, and could not be analyzed by Micro-C. But a targeted deletion of the Antp 3' intronic insulator is viable and causes a partial fusion of the Scr and Antp P2 TADs. The persistence of a residual boundary can be explained by the presence of a secondary insulator located ~4 kb away. Deletion of either Scr TAD boundary severely reduces Scr transcription. Notably, disruption of the Scr-Antp boundary does not weaken the interaction of the DTE with the Scr promoter, suggesting that reduced Scr expression is not due to diminished enhancer-promoter interactions. This partial fusion of the Scr and Antp P2 TADs has, at most, only a marginal impact on Antp transcription, revealing that boundary deletions can have sharply asymmetric regulatory effects on flanking TADs (Batut, 2022).

Because TAD boundary deletions do not alter appropriate enhancer-promoter interactions, an alternative explanation was sought for reduced Scr transcription arising from disruptions of the ftz TAD. SF1 removal exposes the Scr promoter to interactions with the ftz regulatory region, which may thus directly interfere with Scr transcription. By contrast, SF2 removal allows ftz regulatory sequences to interact with the EE enhancer, but not directly with the Scr promoter, which may explain its more subtle transcriptional impact. In the absence of SF1, the severely narrowed Scr domain and distinctive ectopic stripes suggest both activation and silencing by ftz enhancers. A prime suspect for this altered expression pattern is the AE1 enhancer, which binds both activators and the Hairy repressor. Indeed, the AE1 element functions as a potent silencer within the Scr expression domain, and Scr transcription faithfully mirrors AE1 activity upon SF1 removal. It is concluded that the primary function of insulators is to prevent regulatory interference between TADs, and this can explain even surprising quantitative differences in the transcriptional effects of boundary deletions (Batut, 2022).

To assess the functional importance of tethering elements and insulators, this study analyzed the number of teeth on the sex combs of adult males, a quantitative phenotype under sexual selection governed by Scr expression. All relevant deletions reduce the average number of teeth, and the magnitude of the transcriptional defects is highly predictive of the severity of the morphological phenotypes. These observations demonstrate the importance of genome structure for the control of transcriptional dynamics and the precision of developmental patterning (Batut, 2022).

Taken together, these observations support a general model in which genome organization canalizes regulatory interactions through two classes of organizing elements with diametrically opposing functions. A dedicated class of tethering elements, often physically distinct from enhancers, foster enhancer-promoter interactions and are key to fast transcriptional activation kinetics during development. It is anticipated that similar mechanisms will prove to be an important property of vertebrate genomes, where large distances often separate genes from their regulatory sequences. By contrast, TAD boundaries have a pervasive role in enforcing regulatory specificity by preventing interference between neighboring TADs (Batut, 2022).

Although prior studies have emphasized the spatial regulation of gene expression, temporal dynamics have proven far more elusive. Quantitative measurements in live embryos revealed clear delays in the onset of transcription upon deletion of tethering elements. The Trl protein, which binds most of these sequences, has been proposed to act as a DNA looping factor. It is suggested that tethering elements 'jump-start' expression by establishing enhancer-promoter loops before activation, though it is likely that they also serve a broader function. Indeed, it is intriguing that the Scr DTE coincides with a classical Polycomb response element. This is consistent with a possible role for Polycomb repressive complex 1 (PRC1) components in the establishment of enhancer-promoter loops and suggests that focal contacts constitute a versatile topological infrastructure used by a variety of regulatory mechanisms. This study shows that genome organization shapes transcription dynamics through two complementary mechanisms: Tethering elements foster appropriate enhancer-promoter interactions, whereas TAD boundaries prevent inappropriate associations (Batut, 2022).

Transcriptional read through interrupts boundary function in Drosophila

In higher eukaryotes enhancer-promoter interactions are known to be restricted by the chromatin insulators/boundaries that delimit topologically associated domains (TADs); however, there are instances in which enhancer-promoter interactions span one or more boundary elements/TADs. At present, the mechanisms that enable cross-TAD regulatory interaction are not known. These studies hav taken advantage of the well characterized Drosophila Bithorax complex (BX-C) to study one potential mechanism for controlling boundary function and TAD organization. The regulatory domains of BX-C are flanked by boundaries which function to block crosstalk with their neighboring domains and also to support long distance interactions between the regulatory domains and their target gene. As many lncRNAs have been found in BX-C, it was asked whether transcriptional readthrough can impact boundary function. For this purpose, advantage was taken of two BX-C boundary replacement platforms, Fab-7 (attP50) and F2 (attP), in which the Fab-7 and Fub boundaries, respectively, are deleted and replaced with an attP site. Boundary elements, promoters and polyadenylation signals arranged in different combinations were introduced and then assayed for boundary function. The results show that transcriptional readthrough can interfere with boundary activity. Since lncRNAs represent a significant fraction of Pol II transcripts in multicellular eukaryotes, it is possible that many of them may function in the regulation of TAD organization (Kyrchanova, 2023).


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Zygotically transcribed genes

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