Atoh1 is repurposed from neuronal to hair cell determinant by Gfi1 acting as a coactivator without redistributing Atoh1’s genomic binding sites
Although the lineage-determining ability of transcription factors is often modulated according to cellular context, the mechanisms by which such switching occurs are not well known. Using a transcriptional programming model, we found that Atoh1 is repurposed from a neuronal to an inner ear hair cell (HC) determinant by the combined activities of Gfi1 and Pou4f3. In this process, Atoh1 maintains its regulation of neuronal genes but gains ability to regulate HC genes. Pou4f3 enables Atoh1 access to genomic locations controlling the expression of sensory (including HC) genes, but Atoh1+Pou4f3 are not sufficient for HC differentiation. Gfi1 is key to the Atoh1-induced lineage switch, but surprisingly does not alter Atoh1’s binding profile. Gfi1 acts in two divergent ways. It represses the induction by Atoh1 of genes that antagonise HC differentiation, a function in keeping with its well-known repressor role in haematopoiesis. Remarkably, we find that Gfi1 also acts as a co-activator: it binds directly to Atoh1 at existing target genes to enhance its activity. These findings highlight the diversity of mechanisms by which one TF can redirect the activity of another to enable combinatorial control of cell identity.
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