During vertebrate limb development, Hoxd genes are regulated following a bimodal strategy involving two topologically associating domains (TADs) located on either side of the gene cluster. These regulatory landscapes alternatively control different subsets of Hoxd targets, first into the arm and subsequently into the digits. We studied the transition between these two global regulations, a switch that correlates with the positioning of the wrist, which articulates these two main limb segments. We show that the HOX13 proteins themselves help switch off the telomeric TAD, likely through a global repressive mechanism. At the same time, they directly interact with distal enhancers to sustain the activity of the centromeric TAD, thus explaining both the sequential and exclusive operating processes of these two regulatory domains. We propose a model in which the activation of Hox13 gene expression in distal limb cells both interrupts the proximal Hox gene regulation and re-enforces the distal regulation. In the absence of HOX13 proteins, a proximal limb structure grows without any sign of wrist articulation, likely related to an ancestral fish-like condition.
Hox gene clusters of jaw vertebrates display a tight genomic organization, which has no equivalent in any other bilateria genomes sequenced thus far. It was previously argued that such a topological consolidation toward a condensed, metagenic structure was due to the accumulation of long-range regulations flanking Hox loci, a phenomenon made possible by the successive genome duplications that occurred at the root of the vertebrate lineage, similar to gene neofunctionalization but applied to a coordinated multigenic system. Here, we propose that the emergence of such large vertebrate regulatory landscapes containing a range of global enhancers was greatly facilitated by the presence of topologically associating domains (TADs). These chromatin domains, mostly constitutive, may have been used as genomic niches where novel regulations could evolve due to both the preexistence of a structural backbone poised to integrate novel regulatory inputs, and a highly adaptive transcriptional readout. We propose a scenario for the coevolution of such TADs and the emergence of pleiotropy at ancestral vertebrate Hox loci.
Within land vertebrate species, snakes display extreme variations in their body plan, characterized by the absence of limbs and an elongated morphology. Such a particular interpretation of the basic vertebrate body architecture has often been associated with changes in the function or regulation of Hox genes. Here, we use an interspecies comparative approach to investigate different regulatory aspects at the snake HoxD locus. We report that, unlike in other vertebrates, snake mesoderm-specific enhancers are mostly located within the HoxD cluster itself rather than outside. In addition, despite both the absence of limbs and an altered Hoxd gene regulation in external genitalia, the limb-associated bimodal HoxD chromatin structure is maintained at the snake locus. Finally, we show that snake and mouse orthologous enhancer sequences can display distinct expression specificities. These results show that vertebrate morphological evolution likely involved extensive reorganisation at Hox loci, yet within a generally conserved regulatory framework.
Chromatin condensation plays an important role in the regulation of gene expression. Recently, it was shown that the transcriptional activation of Hoxd genes during vertebrate digit development involves modifications in 3D interactions within and around the HoxD gene cluster. This reorganization follows a global transition from one set of regulatory contacts to another, between two topologically associating domains (TADs) located on either side of the HoxD locus. Here, we use 3D DNA FISH to assess the spatial organization of chromatin at and around the HoxD gene cluster and report that although the two TADs are tightly associated, they appear as spatially distinct units. We measured the relative position of genes within the cluster and found that they segregate over long distances, suggesting that a physical elongation of the HoxD cluster can occur. We analyzed this possibility by super-resolution imaging (STORM) and found that tissues with distinct transcriptional activity exhibit differing degrees of elongation. We also observed that the morphological change of the HoxD cluster in developing digits is associated with its position at the boundary between the two TADs. Such variations in the fine-scale architecture of the gene cluster suggest causal links among its spatial configuration, transcriptional activation, and the flanking chromatin context.
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.