Simulations of enhancer evolution provide mechanistic insights into gene regulation

Thyago Duque, Md Abul Hassan Samee, Majid Kazemian, Hannah N. Pham, Michael H. Brodsky, Saurabh Sinha

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


There is growing interest in models of regulatory sequence evolution. However, existing models specifically designed for regulatory sequences consider the independent evolution of individual transcription factor (TF)-binding sites, ignoring that the function and evolution of a binding site depends on its context, typically the cis-regulatory module (CRM) in which the site is located. Moreover, existing models do not account for the gene-specific roles of TF-binding sites, primarily because their roles often are not well understood. We introduce two models of regulatory sequence evolution that address some of the shortcomings of existing models and implement simulation frameworks based on them. One model simulates the evolution of an individual binding site in the context of a CRM, while the other evolves an entire CRM. Both models use a state-of-the art sequence-to-expression model to predict the effects of mutations on the regulatory output of the CRM and determine the strength of selection. We use the new framework to simulate the evolution of TF-binding sites in 37 well-studied CRMs belonging to the anterior-posterior patterning system in Drosophila embryos. We show that these simulations provide accurate fits to evolutionary data from 12 Drosophila genomes, which includes statistics of binding site conservation on relatively short evolutionary scales and site loss across larger divergence times. The new framework allows us, for the first time, to test hypotheses regarding the underlying cis-regulatory code by directly comparing the evolutionary implications of the hypothesis with the observed evolutionary dynamics of binding sites. Using this capability, we find that explicitly modeling self-cooperative DNA binding by the TF Caudal (CAD) provides significantly better fits than an otherwise identical evolutionary simulation that lacks this mechanistic aspect. This hypothesis is further supported by a statistical analysis of the distribution of intersite spacing between adjacent CAD sites. Experimental tests confirm direct homodimeric interaction between CAD molecules as well as self-cooperative DNA binding by CAD. We note that computational modeling of the D. melanogaster CRMs alone did not yield significant evidence to support CAD self-cooperativity. We thus demonstrate how specific mechanistic details encoded in CRMs can be revealed by modeling their evolution and fitting such models to multispecies data.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)184-200
Number of pages17
JournalMolecular biology and evolution
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2014


  • cis-regulatory module
  • cooperativity
  • enhancer
  • evolution
  • simulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics


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