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Analysis of regulatory element evolution between human and mouse reveals a lack of cis-trans compensation

By Kaia Mattioli, Winona Oliveros, Chiara Gerhardinger, Daniel Andergassen, Philipp G Maass, John Rinn, Marta Melé

Posted 20 Nov 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/847491

Gene expression differences between species are driven by both cis and trans effects. Whereas cis effects are caused by genetic variants in close proximity to the target gene, trans effects are due to distal genetic variants that affect diffusible elements such as transcription factors. Previous studies have mostly assessed the impact of cis and trans effects at the gene level. However, how cis and trans effects differentially impact regulatory elements such as enhancers and promoters remains poorly understood. Here, we used massively parallel reporter assays to directly measure cis and trans effects between human and mouse embryonic stem cells at thousands of individual regulatory elements. Our approach revealed that cis effects are widespread across regulatory elements, and the strongest cis effects are associated with the disruption of motifs recognized by strong transcriptional activators. Conversely, we found that trans effects are rare but stronger in enhancers than promoters, and can be attributed to a subset of transcription factors that are differentially expressed between human and mouse. While previous studies have found extensive co-occurrence of cis and trans effects in opposite directions that stabilize gene expression throughout evolution, we find that cis-trans compensation is uncommon within individual regulatory elements. Thus, our results are consistent with a model wherein compensatory cis-trans effects at the gene level are explained by cis and trans effects that separately impact several regulatory elements rather than cis-trans effects that occur simultaneously within a single regulatory element. Together, these results indicate that studying the evolution of individual regulatory elements is pivotal to understand the tempo and mode of gene expression evolution.

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