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Genome Biol. 2018 Jul 25;19(1):99. doi: 10.1186/s13059-018-1473-6.

Functional characterization of enhancer evolution in the primate lineage.

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Department of Genome Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, 98195, USA.
Department of Genome Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, 98195, USA.
Department of Genome Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, 98195, USA.
Howard Hughes Medical Institute, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, 98195, USA.
Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine, Seattle, WA, 98195-8047, USA.



Enhancers play an important role in morphological evolution and speciation by controlling the spatiotemporal expression of genes. Previous efforts to understand the evolution of enhancers in primates have typically studied many enhancers at low resolution, or single enhancers at high resolution. Although comparative genomic studies reveal large-scale turnover of enhancers, a specific understanding of the molecular steps by which mammalian or primate enhancers evolve remains elusive.


We identified candidate hominoid-specific liver enhancers from H3K27ac ChIP-seq data. After locating orthologs in 11 primates spanning around 40 million years, we synthesized all orthologs as well as computational reconstructions of 9 ancestral sequences for 348 active tiles of 233 putative enhancers. We concurrently tested all sequences for regulatory activity with STARR-seq in HepG2 cells. We observe groups of enhancer tiles with coherent trajectories, most of which can be potentially explained by a single gain or loss-of-activity event per tile. We quantify the correlation between the number of mutations along a branch and the magnitude of change in functional activity. Finally, we identify 84 mutations that correlate with functional changes; these are enriched for cytosine deamination events within CpGs.


We characterized the evolutionary-functional trajectories of hundreds of liver enhancers throughout the primate phylogeny. We observe subsets of regulatory sequences that appear to have gained or lost activity. We use these data to quantify the relationship between sequence and functional divergence, and to identify CpG deamination as a potentially important force in driving changes in enhancer activity during primate evolution.

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