Enhancers and super-enhancers have an equivalent regulatory role in embryonic stem cells through regulation of single or multiple genes

Sakthi D Moorthy, Scott Davidson, Virlana M Shchuka, Gurdeep Singh, Nakisa Malek-Gilani, Lida Langroudi, Alexandre Martchenko, Vincent So, Neil N Macpherson and Jennifer A Mitchell

Genome Research 2016 Nov;

PMID: 27895109


Transcriptional enhancers are critical for maintaining cell type-specific gene expression and driving cell fate changes during development. Highly transcribed genes are often associated with a cluster of individual enhancers such as those found in locus control regions. Recently these have been termed stretch enhancers or super-enhancers, which have been predicted to regulate critical cell identity genes. We employed a CRISPR/Cas9-mediated deletion approach to study the function of several enhancer clusters (ECs) and isolated enhancers in mouse embryonic stem (ES) cells. Our results reveal that the effect of deleting ECs, also classified as ES cell super-enhancers, is highly variable, resulting in target gene expression reductions ranging from 12% to as much as 92%. Partial deletions of these ECs which removed only one enhancer or a sub-cluster of enhancers revealed partially redundant control of the regulated gene by multiple enhancers within the larger cluster. Many highly transcribed genes in ES cells are not associated with a super-enhancer; furthermore, super-enhancer predictions ignore 81% of the potentially active regulatory elements predicted by co-binding of 5 or more pluripotency-associated transcription factors. Deletion of these additional enhancer regions revealed their robust regulatory role in gene transcription. In addition, select super-enhancers and enhancers were identified which regulated clusters of paralogous genes. We conclude that whereas robust transcriptional output can be achieved by an isolated enhancer, clusters of enhancers acting on a common target gene act in a partially redundant manner to fine tune transcriptional output of their target genes.