Thermodynamics-Based Models of Transcriptional Regulation by Enhancers: The Roles of Synergistic Activation, Cooperative Binding and Short-Range Repression
Quantitative models of cis-regulatory activity have the potential to improve our mechanistic understanding of transcriptional regulation. However, the few models available today have been based on simplistic assumptions about the sequences being modeled, or heuristic approximations of the underlying regulatory mechanisms. We have developed a thermodynamics-based model to predict gene expression driven by any DNA sequence, as a function of transcription factor concentrations and their DNA-binding specificities. It uses statistical thermodynamics theory to model not only protein-DNA interaction, but also the effect of DNA-bound activators and repressors on gene expression. In addition, the model incorporates mechanistic features such as synergistic effect of multiple activators, short range repression, and cooperativity in transcription factor-DNA binding, allowing us to systematically evaluate the significance of these features in the context of available expression data. Using this model on segmentation-related enhancers in Drosophila, we find that transcriptional synergy due to simultaneous action of multiple activators helps explain the data beyond what can be explained by cooperative DNA-binding alone. We find clear support for the phenomenon of short-range repression, where repressors do not directly interact with the basal transcriptional machinery. We also find that the binding sites contributing to an enhancer's function may not be conserved during evolution, and a noticeable fraction of these undergo lineage-specific changes. Our implementation of the model, called GEMSTAT, is the first publicly available program for simultaneously modeling the regulatory activities of a given set of sequences. The development of complex multicellular organisms requires genes to be expressed at specific stages and in specific tissues. Regulatory DNA sequences, often called cis-regulatory modules, drive the desired gene expression patterns by integrating information about the environment in the form of the activities of transcription factors. The rules by which regulatory sequences read this type of information, however, are unclear. In this work, we developed quantitative models based on physicochemical principles that directly map regulatory sequences to the expression profiles they generate. We evaluated these models on the segmentation network of the model organism Drosophila melanogaster. Our models incorporate mechanistic features that attempt to capture how activating and repressing transcription factors work in the segmentation system. By evaluating the importance of these features, we were able to gain insights on the quantitative regulatory rules. We found that two different mechanisms may contribute to cooperative gene activation and that repressors often have a short range of influence in DNA sequences. Combining the quantitative modeling with comparative sequence analysis, we also found that even functional sequences may be lost during evolution.