Signaling decoded in enhancer states – a molecular basis for plasticity in development and differentiation

Title Signaling decoded in enhancer states – a molecular basis for plasticity in development and differentiation
Acronym SENCE
Start date 2023-11-01
End date 2028-10-31
Sponsor European Research Council - Advanced Grant (ERC-AdG)
Institution University of Copenhagen

Associated cell lines

Project Description

Transcription is regulated by transcription factors (TFs) bound at enhancer elements located long-distances from the genes they regulate. How does this account for dynamic responses to the environment via signaling? Canonical views invoke signal induced changes in TF expression/modification or cofactor localization, but here we suggest that TF occupancy could be present before and after the signal, establishing competence, ensuring plasticity and blocking premature commitment. For ERK signaling, a central regulator of embryonic stem cell (ESC) differentiation, we found enhancers were regulated via selective recruitment of RNA Polymerase II (RNAPII) and associated cofactors. In this case, TFs do not play a direct role in enhancer regulation, but safeguard future activation in response to changes in signaling. In the context of developmental biology this paradigm could explain the dynamic nature of cell specification in the early mammalian embryo. In this proposal, we seek to understand enhancer specific regulation by ERK, exploit our ability to manipulate ERK to disentangle mechanism and focus on preimplantation development to explore how these phenomena explain plasticity. To circumvent heterogeneity created by feedback inhibition we developed a unique ESC line for cell intrinsic and synchronous ERK induction. We combine these ESCs with rapid TF degradation mutants to isolate homogeneous cell states that can be exploited to generate unique datasets and identify key factors within ERK response. We address how coactivator phosphorylation promotes selective recruitment of Mediator/RNAPII, explore the fundamental nature of enhancer activity and ask how uncoupling of transcriptional regulation from TF binding underpins developmental plasticity. By exploiting our capacity to modulate enhancer activity via signaling, we not only address how signaling regulates transcription to drive differentiation choices, but how enhancers themselves regulate gene expression.