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Genome Biol Evol. 2018 Sep 1;10(9):2535-2550. doi: 10.1093/gbe/evy196.

Pairs of Adjacent Conserved Noncoding Elements Separated by Conserved Genomic Distances Act as Cis-Regulatory Units.

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Division of Bioinformatics, Department of Biology, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Erlangen, Germany.


Comparative genomic studies have identified thousands of conserved noncoding elements (CNEs) in the mammalian genome, many of which have been reported to exert cis-regulatory activity. We analyzed ∼5,500 pairs of adjacent CNEs in the human genome and found that despite divergence at the nucleotide sequence level, the inter-CNE distances of the pairs are under strong evolutionary constraint, with inter-CNE sequences featuring significantly lower transposon densities than expected. Further, we show that different degrees of conservation of the inter-CNE distance are associated with distinct cis-regulatory functions at the CNEs. Specifically, the CNEs in pairs with conserved and mildly contracted inter-CNE sequences are the most likely to represent active or poised enhancers. In contrast, CNEs in pairs with extremely contracted or expanded inter-CNE sequences are associated with no cis-regulatory activity. Furthermore, we observed that functional CNEs in a pair have very similar epigenetic profiles, hinting at a functional relationship between them. Taken together, our results support the existence of epistatic interactions between adjacent CNEs that are distance-sensitive and disrupted by transposon insertions and deletions, and contribute to our understanding of the selective forces acting on cis-regulatory elements, which are crucial for elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying adaptive evolution and human genetic diseases.

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