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High-throughput functional analysis of lncRNA core promoters elucidates rules governing tissue-specificity

By Kaia Mattioli, Pieter-Jan Volders, Chiara Gerhardinger, James C. Lee, Philipp G Maass, Marta Melé, John Rinn

Posted 29 Nov 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/482232 (published DOI: 10.1101/gr.242222.118)

Transcription initiates at both coding and non-coding genomic elements, including mRNA and long non-coding RNA (lncRNA) core promoters and enhancer RNAs (eRNAs). However, each class has different expression profiles with lncRNAs and eRNAs being the most tissue-specific. How these complex differences in expression profiles and tissue-specificities are encoded in a single DNA sequence, however, remains unresolved. Here, we address this question using computational approaches and massively parallel reporter assays (MPRA) surveying hundreds of promoters and enhancers. We find that both divergent lncRNA and mRNA core promoters have higher capacities to drive transcription than non-divergent lncRNA and mRNA core promoters, respectively. Conversely, lincRNAs and eRNAs have lower capacities to drive transcription and are more tissue-specific than divergent genes. This higher tissue-specificity is strongly associated with having less complex TF motif profiles at the core promoter. We experimentally validated these findings by testing both engineered single-nucleotide deletions and human single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in MPRA. In both cases, we observe that single nucleotides associated with many motifs are important drivers of promoter activity. Thus, we suggest that high TF motif density serves as a robust mechanism to increase promoter activity at the expense of tissue-specificity. Moreover, we find that 22% of common SNPs in core promoter regions have significant regulatory effects. Collectively, our findings show that high TF motif density provides redundancy and increases promoter activity at the expense of tissue specificity, suggesting that specificity of expression may be regulated by simplicity of motif usage.

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