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Epigenetics Chromatin. 2013 Apr 22;6(1):8. doi: 10.1186/1756-8935-6-8.

Vertebrate GAGA factor associated insulator elements demarcate homeotic genes in the HOX clusters.

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Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Uppal Road, Hyderabad, 500007, India.



Hox genes impart segment identity to body structures along the anterior-posterior axis and are crucial for the proper development of all organisms. Multiple regulatory elements, best defined in Drosophila melanogaster, ensure that Hox expression patterns follow the spatial and temporal colinearity reflected in their tight genomic organization. However, the precise mechanisms that regulate colinear patterns of Hox gene expression remain unclear, especially in higher vertebrates where it is not fully determined how the distinct activation domains of the tightly clustered Hox genes are defined independently of each other. Here, we report the identification of a large number of novel cis-elements at mammalian Hox clusters that can help in regulating their precise expression pattern.


We have identified DNA elements at all four murine Hox clusters that show poor association with histone H3 in chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP)-chip tiling arrays. The majority of these elements lie in the intergenic regions segregating adjacent Hox genes; we demonstrate that they possess efficient enhancer-blocking activity in mammalian cells. Further, we find that these histone-free intergenic regions bear GA repeat motifs and associate with the vertebrate homolog of the GAGA binding boundary factor. This suggests that they can act as GAGA factor-dependent chromatin boundaries that create independent domains, insulating each Hox gene from the influence of neighboring regulatory elements.


Our results reveal a large number of potential regulatory elements throughout the murine Hox clusters. We further demarcate the precise location of several novel cis-elements bearing chromatin boundary activity that appear to segregate successive Hox genes. This reflects a pattern reminiscent of the organization of homeotic genes in Drosophila, where such regulatory elements have been characterized. Our findings thus provide new insights into the regulatory processes and evolutionarily conserved epigenetic mechanisms that control homeotic gene expression.

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