Appreciation of the molecular mechanisms responsible for intestine-specific gene regulation and cell differentiation is limited. One important regulator, the transcription factor CDX2, is restricted to intestinal epithelium, where it is expressed throughout the crypt-villus unit and required in vivo for differentiation of gut- specific columnar epithelium. Knowledge of CDX2's transcriptional targets and mechanisms is incomplete, as is understanding of how it functions as a master transcriptional regulator. We have used whole-genome chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) to identify, with high confidence, regions of CDX2 occupancy in colonic epithelial cells. CDX2-binding regions are highly conserved and show significant clustering of motifs for a handful of other sequence-specific DNA-binding proteins previously implicated in intestinal gene regulation. Our studies hence correctly identify numerous CDX2 targets and reveal 3 specific candidate partner transcription factors in intestine-specific gene regulation. We will extend the preliminary data and insights to test specific hypotheses on CDX2 function and molecular mechanisms.
Aim 1 seeks to identify which among ~1,100 CDX2-binding sites are bona fide cis-elements in intestine cells. We will identify transcripts that respond to CDX2 depletion in cells that express the factor and to forced CDX2 expression in cells that don't. We will also test putative cis-elements in functional reporter assays and critically examine whether CDX2 target genes reflect the activities expected of a master regulator. Unexpectedly, we find that CDX2 commonly occupies DNA very close to binding sites for Tcf proteins, transcriptional effectors of the canonical Wnt pathway. Wnt signals are transmitted in many tissues but are critical in intestinal homeostasis. We will test the novel hypothesis that CDX2 imparts intestinal specificity within a global Wnt response. We also find significant co-occupancy of the nuclear receptor HNF4) near CDX2-activated genes and of GATA proteins near genes that CDX2 appears to repress.
Aim 2 takes several approaches to test the hypothesis that HNF4) and GATA factors combine with CDX2 to activate and silence genes, respectively. Lastly, genome-wide ChIP on isolated mouse intestinal crypt and villus fractions implies that Cdx2 controls distinct genes within these two functional compartments.
In Aim 3 we will test this hypothesis and address the underlying mechanisms. We will delineate Cdx2 partner proteins and ask if Cdx2 binding is needed to generate crypt- and villus-specific chromatin domains or, conversely, if Cdx2 responds to the creation of such domains by other factors. To this end, we have established the feasibility of whole-genome analysis of informative chromatin marks and generated mice in which intestinal Cdx2 levels can be modulated. These studies represent a detailed and comprehensive approach to elucidate mechanisms of intestine-specific gene regulation.
Common disorders of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, including inflammation, malabsorption, ulcers and cancer, cause considerable suffering and death. Although these conditions are fundamentally related to mechanisms of normal gene expression and cell behavior, there is limited appreciation of their molecular underpinnings. The CDX2 protein, which is found almost exclusively in the intestine, is a pivotal regulator in normal and disease states. Investigation of its regulatory functions will improve understanding and, ultimately, treatment of many common GI diseases.
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