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Abstract

Accurate spatio-temporal control of Hox cluster genes expression is critical for the proper organization of body structures during vertebrate embryogenesis. In the limbs, Hoxd genes are critical in setting up the proximodistal and anteroposterior axes. Several studies have shown that long-range global regulatory elements are required to establish Hoxd genes expression territories in this tissue, via the co-regulation of several genes at once. Limb buds take their origin from the lateral plate mesoderm where the HoxD cluster is controlled by cues from the main body axis. During limb outgrowth Hoxd genes are then subjected to two subsequent activation waves: an early phase patterning proximal limb structures, arms and forearms and a late one instructing digits. As the late activation of Hoxd genes is known to rely upon a large regulatory archipelago located centromeric to the gene cluster, the control of the early phase remains poorly described (Montavon et al., 2011). In this work we show that the early activation domain requires a different, telomeric-located, regulatory landscape. This one megabase (Mb) large domain holds at least three regulatory regions contributing to Hoxd gene activation in early forelimb and hindlimb buds. To our surprise the abrogation of most of the early telomeric enhancers induced a dramatic decrease of central Hoxd transcription in forelimbs but only removed 50% of the transcripts in hindlimbs. This discrepancy most likely arises from the difference in the epigenetic status of the HoxD cluster in anterior and posterior limb fields where forelimb and hindlimb respectively take their origin. As the cluster does not possess the same fraction of active genes in these progenitors it most likely does not respond to early cues in the same way. In the second part of this work we noticed an unexpected decrease of the late expression phase in all mutants lacking early enhancers. This observation shows that digit progenitors have to implement the early phase in order to gain competence toward the late centromeric regulation. This transition between early and late regulations involves a set of central Hoxd genes, i.e. Hoxd11 to Hoxd9. To implement both regulations, these loci switch between two topological domains containing the centromeric and telomeric regulatory landscapes respectively (Dixon et al., 2012). The ability to switch from one domain to another depends on the relative position of genes towards the boundary between both domains and correlates with their respective expression. Moreover, the switch between both topological domains mechanically induces an intermediate, Hoxd-free zone, in-between the two expression phases that will later produce the mesopodium, the articulation between our arms and our hands.

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