By: Ann Boija

Title: Transcriptional and epigenetic control of gene expression in embryo development


Examination board

Jerry L. Workman, Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City, Missouri (Opponent)

Annika Wallberg, Institute of Environmental Medicine, Karolinska Institute

Stefan Thor, Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, Linköping University

Thomas Perlmann, Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, Karolinska Institute

Stefan Åström, Department of Molecular Biosciences, Wenner-Gren Institute, Stockholm University (Chairman of dissertation)



During cell specification, temporal and spatially restricted gene expression programs are set up, forming different cell types and ultimately a multicellular organism. In this thesis, we have studied the molecular mechanisms by which sequence specific transcription factors and coactivators regulate RNA polymerase II (Pol II) transcription to establish specific gene expression programs and what epigenetic patterns that follows.

We found that the transcription factor Dorsal is responsible for establishing discrete epigenetic patterns in the presumptive mesoderm, neuroectoderm and dorsal ectoderm, during early Drosophila embryo development. In addition, these different chromatin states can be linked to distinct modes of Pol II regulation. Our results provide novel insights into how gene regulatory networks form an epigenetic landscape and how their coordinated actions specify cell identity. CBP/p300 is a widely used co-activator and histone acetyltransferase (HAT) involved in transcriptional activation. We discovered that CBP occupies the genome preferentially together with Dorsal, and has a specific role during development in coordinating the dorsal-ventral axis of the Drosophila embryo. While CBP generally correlates with gene activation we also found CBP in H3K27me3 repressed chromatin.

Previous studies have shown that CBP has an important role at transcriptional enhancers. We provide evidence that the regulatory role of CBP does not stop at enhancers, but is extended to many genomic regions. CBP binds to insulators and regulates their activity by acetylating histones to prevent spreading of H3K27me3. We further discovered that CBP has a direct regulatory role at promoters. Using a highly potent CBP inhibitor in combination with ChIP and PRO-seq we found that CBP regulates promoter proximal pausing of Pol II. CBP promotes Pol II recruitment to promoters via a direct interaction with TFIIB, and promotes transcriptional elongation by acetylating the first nucleosome. CBP is regulating Pol II activity of nearly all expressed genes, however, either recruitment or release of Pol II is the rate-limiting step affected by CBP. Taken together, these results reveal mechanistic insights into cell specification and transcriptional control during development.