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Abstract

Precise spatiotemporal regulation of gene expression is essential for development and homeostasis of complex organisms. This is achieved in large part by sequence-specific transcription factors (TF) that bind to genomic regulatory elements to activate or repress transcription. DNA in eukaryotic nuclei is wrapped around histones into nucleosomes, which are inaccessible to most proteins. However, certain TFs can access their binding sites in the presence of histones and promote nucleosome eviction to increase chromatin accessibility, allowing for binding of other protein. These TFs, called pioneer factors, include OCT4 and SOX2, which are master regulators of embryonic stem (ES) cells. Dividing cells, including stem cells, must achieve proper gene regulation despite the progression of the cell cycle, which imposes several constraints. During S phase, the replication fork passes through the genome to make a copy of each chromosome, which leads to a loss of chromatin accessibility. Furthermore, the substantial chromatin compaction that occurs during mitosis to prepare for chromosome segregation is associated with eviction of most DNA-binding proteins and reduced accessibility at distal cis-regulatory elements including enhancers. How pioneer factors operate in the context of cell cycle progression is unclear. In this thesis, I will present work studying different features of OCT4 and SOX2, including how they interplay to regulate chromatin accessibility in ES cells, the impact of small endogenous fluctuations of their protein levels on cell fate and chromatin accessibility, and how their roles in regulating cell fate and chromatin accessibility is related to different stages of the cell cycle. Using live-cell imaging of fluorescently labeled proteins, we discovered that OCT4 and SOX2 were associated to mitotic chromatin. Using cell-cycle specific degradation strategies, we could show that the presence of SOX2 and OCT4 at the mitosis-G1 (M-G1) transition contributes to maintain the pluripotency of ES cells. We further showed that ES cells with high levels of OCT4 in G1, but not in S phase, are more prone to differentiate towards neuroectoderm and mesendoderm cell fates. Cells with high levels of OCT4 displayed increased chromatin accessibility at enhancers of differentiation genes, suggesting accessibility fluctuates with OCT4 levels and can prime cells for differentiation. To explore potential cell cycle-dependent regulation of chromatin accessibility, we degraded OCT4 at the M-G1 transition, which led to a reduction in accessibility at many OCT4-bound regions. When OCT4 returned later in the cell cycle, chromatin accessibility was recovered, although at many loci this recovery was incomplete, suggesting that OCT4 is required at the M-G1 transition to maintain these regions open. We then rapidly degraded OCT4 at other phases of the cell cycle. Surprisingly, loss of chromatin accessibility was highly similar at all cell cycle phases, showing that OCT4 is constantly required to maintain regulatory elements accessible. To explore the dynamic regulation of accessibility by OCT4, we performed time-course measurements of accessibility upon its degradation. This revealed that loss of accessibility was temporally correlated to the degradation of OCT4. These results suggest that chromatin accessibility is highly dynamic and continuously dependent on the presence of OCT4 across the cell cycle in ES cells.

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