Genomic context analysis reveals dense interaction network between vertebrate ultraconserved non-coding elements.
Genomic context analysis, also known as phylogenetic profiling, is widely used to infer functional interactions between proteins but rarely applied to non-coding cis-regulatory DNA elements. We were wondering whether this approach could provide insights about utlraconserved non-coding elements (UCNEs). These elements are organized as large clusters, so-called gene regulatory blocks (GRBs) around key developmental genes. Their molecular functions and the reasons for their high degree of conservation remain enigmatic. In a special setting of genomic context analysis, we analyzed the fate of GRBs after a whole-genome duplication event in five fish genomes. We found that in most cases all UCNEs were retained together as a single block, whereas the corresponding target genes were often retained in two copies, one completely devoid of UCNEs. This 'winner-takes-all' pattern suggests that UCNEs of a GRB function in a highly cooperative manner. We propose that the multitude of interactions between UCNEs is the reason for their extreme sequence conservation. Supplementary data are available at Bioinformatics online and at http://ccg.vital-it.ch/ucne/