Modifications in gene regulation are driving forces in the evolution of organisms. Part of these changes involve cis-regulatory elements (CREs), which contact their target genes through higher-order chromatin structures. However, how such architectures and variations in CREs contribute to transcriptional evolvability remains elusive. We use Hoxd genes as a paradigm for the emergence of regulatory innovations, as many relevant enhancers are located in a regulatory landscape highly conserved in amniotes. Here, we analysed their regulation in murine vibrissae and chicken feather primordia, two skin appendages expressing different Hoxd gene subsets, and compared the regulation of these genes in these appendages with that in the elongation of the posterior trunk. In the two former structures, distinct subsets of Hoxd genes are contacted by different lineage-specific enhancers, probably as a result of using an ancestral chromatin topology as an evolutionary playground, whereas the gene regulation that occurs in the mouse and chicken embryonic trunk partially relies on conserved CREs. A high proportion of these non-coding sequences active in the trunk have functionally diverged between species, suggesting that transcriptional robustness is maintained, despite considerable divergence in enhancer sequences.
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