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PLoS Comput Biol. 2011 Dec;7(12):e1002304. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002304. Epub 2011 Dec 22.

Combinatorial binding in human and mouse embryonic stem cells identifies conserved enhancers active in early embryonic development.

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Department of Computational Molecular Biology, Max-Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, Berlin, Germany.


Transcription factors are proteins that regulate gene expression by binding to cis-regulatory sequences such as promoters and enhancers. In embryonic stem (ES) cells, binding of the transcription factors OCT4, SOX2 and NANOG is essential to maintain the capacity of the cells to differentiate into any cell type of the developing embryo. It is known that transcription factors interact to regulate gene expression. In this study we show that combinatorial binding is strongly associated with co-localization of the transcriptional co-activator Mediator, H3K27ac and increased expression of nearby genes in embryonic stem cells. We observe that the same loci bound by Oct4, Nanog and Sox2 in ES cells frequently drive expression in early embryonic development. Comparison of mouse and human ES cells shows that less than 5% of individual binding events for OCT4, SOX2 and NANOG are shared between species. In contrast, about 15% of combinatorial binding events and even between 53% and 63% of combinatorial binding events at enhancers active in early development are conserved. Our analysis suggests that the combination of OCT4, SOX2 and NANOG binding is critical for transcription in ES cells and likely plays an important role for embryogenesis by binding at conserved early developmental enhancers. Our data suggests that the fast evolutionary rewiring of regulatory networks mainly affects individual binding events, whereas "gene regulatory hotspots" which are bound by multiple factors and active in multiple tissues throughout early development are under stronger evolutionary constraints.

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