The tetrapod vertebral column has become increasingly complex during evolution as an adaptation to a terrestrial life. At the same time, the evolution of the vertebral formula became subject to developmental constraints acting on the size of the cervical and thoraco-lumbar regions. In the course of our studies concerning the evolution of Hox gene regulation, we produced a transgenic mouse model expressing fish Hox genes, which displayed a reduced number of thoraco-lumbar vertebrae and concurrent sacral homeotic transformations. Here, we analyze this mutant stock and conclude that the ancestral, pre-tetrapodial Hox code already possessed the capacity to induce vertebrae with sacral characteristics. This suggests that alterations in the interpretation of the Hox code may have participated to the evolution of this region in tetrapods, along with potential modifications of the HOX proteins themselves. With its reduced vertebral number, this mouse stock violates a previously described developmental constraint, which applies to the thoraco-lumbar region. The resulting offset between motor neuron morphology, vertebral patterning and the relative positioning of hind limbs illustrates that the precise orchestration of the Hox-clock in parallel with other ontogenetic pathways places constraints on the evolvability of the body plan.
Hox genes encode transcription factors necessary for patterning the major developing anterior to posterior embryonic axis. In addition, during vertebrate evolution, various subsets of this gene family were coopted along with the emergence of novel body structures, such as the limbs or the external genitalia. The morphogenesis of these axial structures thus relies in part upon the precisely controlled transcription of specific Hox genes, a mechanism involving multiple long-range enhancers. Recently, it was reported that such regulatory mechanisms were largely shared between different developing tissues, though with some specificities, suggesting the recruitment of ancestral regulatory modalities from one tissue to another. The analysis of chromatin architectures at HoxD and HoxA loci revealed the existence of two flanking topologically associating domains (TADs), precisely encompassing the adjacent regulatory landscapes. Here, we discuss the function of these TADs in the control of Hox gene regulation and we speculate about their capacity to serve as structural frameworks for the emergence of novel enhancers. In this view, TADs may have been used as genomic niches to evolve pleiotropic regulations found at many developmental loci.
Embryogenesis requires the precise activation and repression of many transcriptional regulators. The Polycomb group proteins and the associated H3K27me3 histone mark are essential to maintain the inactive state of many of these genes. Mammalian Hox genes are targets of Polycomb proteins and form local 3D clusters centered on the H3K27me3 mark. More distal contacts have also been described, yet their selectivity, dynamics, and relation to other layers of chromatin organization remained elusive. We report that repressed Hox genes form mutual intra- and interchromosomal interactions with other genes located in strong domains labeled by H3K27me3. These interactions occur in a central and active nuclear environment that consists of the HiC compartment A, away from peripheral lamina-associated domains. Interactions are independent of nearby H3K27me3-marked loci and determined by chromosomal distance and cell-type-specific scaling factors, thus inducing a moderate reorganization during embryogenesis. These results provide a simplified view of nuclear organization whereby Polycomb proteins may have evolved to repress genes located in gene-dense regions whose position is restricted to central, active, nuclear environments.
Hox genes are required during the morphogenesis of both vertebrate digits and external genitals. We investigated whether transcription in such distinct contexts involves a shared enhancer-containing landscape. We show that the same regulatory topology is used, yet with some tissue-specific enhancer-promoter interactions, suggesting the hijacking of a regulatory backbone from one context to the other. In addition, comparable organizations are observed at both HoxA and HoxD clusters, which separated through genome duplication in an ancestral invertebrate animal. We propose that this convergent regulatory evolution was triggered by the preexistence of some chromatin architecture, thus facilitating the subsequent recruitment of the appropriate transcription factors. Such regulatory topologies may have both favored and constrained the evolution of pleiotropic developmental loci in vertebrates.
Following their duplications at the base of the vertebrate clade, Hox gene clusters underwent remarkable sub- and neo-functionalization events. Many of these evolutionary innovations can be associated with changes in the transcriptional regulation of their genes, where an intricate relationship between the structure of the gene cluster and the architecture of the surrounding genomic landscape is at play. Here, we report on a portfolio of in vivo genome engineering strategies in mice, which have been used to probe and decipher the genetic and molecular underpinnings of the complex regulatory mechanisms implemented at these loci.
The large spectrum of limb morphologies reflects the wide evolutionary diversification of the basic pentadactyl pattern in tetrapods. In even-toed ungulates (artiodactyls, including cattle), limbs are adapted for running as a consequence of progressive reduction of their distal skeleton to symmetrical and elongated middle digits with hoofed phalanges. Here we analyse bovine embryos to establish that polarized gene expression is progressively lost during limb development in comparison to the mouse. Notably, the transcriptional upregulation of the Ptch1 gene, which encodes a Sonic hedgehog (SHH) receptor, is disrupted specifically in the bovine limb bud mesenchyme. This is due to evolutionary alteration of a Ptch1 cis-regulatory module, which no longer responds to graded SHH signalling during bovine handplate development. Our study provides a molecular explanation for the loss of digit asymmetry in bovine limb buds and suggests that modifications affecting the Ptch1 cis-regulatory landscape have contributed to evolutionary diversification of artiodactyl limbs.
Hox genes are essential regulators of embryonic development. Their step-wise transcriptional activation follows their genomic topology and the various states of activation are subsequently memorized into domains of progressively overlapping gene products. We have analyzed the 3D chromatin organization of Hox clusters during their early activation in vivo, using high-resolution circular chromosome conformation capture. Initially, Hox clusters are organized as single chromatin compartments containing all genes and bivalent chromatin marks. Transcriptional activation is associated with a dynamic bi-modal 3D organization, whereby the genes switch autonomously from an inactive to an active compartment. These local 3D dynamics occur within a framework of constitutive interactions within the surrounding Topological Associated Domains, indicating that this regulation process is mostly cluster intrinsic. The step-wise progression in time is fixed at various body levels and thus can account for the chromatin architectures previously described at a later stage for different anterior to posterior levels.DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.02557.001.
The emergence of limb-driven locomotor behaviors was a key event in the evolution of vertebrates and fostered the transition from aquatic to terrestrial life. We show that the generation of limb-projecting lateral motor column (LMC) neurons in mice relies on a transcriptional autoregulatory module initiated via transient activity of multiple genes within the HoxA and HoxC clusters. Repression of this module at thoracic levels restricts expression of LMC determinants, thus dictating LMC position relative to the limbs. This suppression is mediated by a key regulatory domain that is specifically found in the Hoxc9 proteins of appendage-bearing vertebrates. The profile of Hoxc9 expression inversely correlates with LMC position in land vertebrates and likely accounts for the absence of LMC neurons in limbless species such as snakes. Thus, modulation of both Hoxc9 protein function and Hoxc9 gene expression likely contributed to evolutionary transitions between undulatory and ambulatory motor circuit connectivity programs.
Although a small number of the vast array of animal long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) have known effects on cellular processes examined in vitro, the extent of their contributions to normal cell processes throughout development, differentiation and disease for the most part remains less clear. Phenotypes arising from deletion of an entire genomic locus cannot be unequivocally attributed either to the loss of the lncRNA per se or to the associated loss of other overlapping DNA regulatory elements. The distinction between cis- or trans-effects is also often problematic. We discuss the advantages and challenges associated with the current techniques for studying the in vivo function of lncRNAs in the light of different models of lncRNA molecular mechanism, and reflect on the design of experiments to mutate lncRNA loci. These considerations should assist in the further investigation of these transcriptional products of the genome.DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.03058.001.