TFIIIC-based chromatin insulators through eukaryotic evolution

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Eukaryotic chromosomes are divided into domains with distinct structural and functional properties, such as differing levels of chromatin compaction and gene transcription. Domains of relatively compact chromatin and minimal transcription are termed heterochromatic, whereas euchromatin is more open and actively transcribed. Insulators separate these domains and maintain their distinct features. Disruption of insulators can cause diseases such as cancer. Many insulators contain tRNA genes (tDNAs), examples of which have been shown to block the spread of activating or silencing activities. This characteristic of specific tDNAs is conserved through evolution, such that human tDNAs can serve as barriers to the spread of silencing in fission yeast. Here we demonstrate that tDNAs from the methylotrophic fungus Pichia pastoris can function effectively as insulators in distantly-related budding yeast. Key to the function of tDNAs as insulators is TFIIIC, a transcription factor that is also required for their expression. TFIIIC binds additional loci besides tDNAs, some of which have insulator activity. Although the mechanistic basis of TFIIIC-based insulation has been studied extensively in yeast, it is largely uncharacterized in metazoa. Utilising publicly-available genome-wide ChIP-seq data, we consider the extent to which mechanisms conserved from yeast to man may suffice to allow efficient insulation by TFIIIC in the more challenging chromatin environments of metazoa and suggest features that may have been acquired during evolution to cope with new challenges. We demonstrate the widespread presence at human tDNAs of USF1, a transcription factor with well-established barrier activity in vertebrates. We predict that tDNA-based insulators in higher organisms have evolved through incorporation of modules, such as binding sites for factors like USF1 and CTCF that are absent from yeasts, thereby strengthening function and providing opportunities for regulation between cell types.

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