Human Lineage-Specific Transcriptional Regulation through GA-Binding Protein Transcription Factor Alpha (GABPa)

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A substantial fraction of phenotypic differences between closely related species are likely caused by differences in gene regulation. While this has already been postulated over 30 years ago, only few examples of evolutionary changes in gene regulation have been verified. Here, we identified and investigated binding sites of the transcription factor GA-binding protein alpha (GABPa) aiming to discover cis-regulatory adaptations on the human lineage. By performing chromatin immunoprecipitation-sequencing experiments in a human cell line, we found 11,619 putative GABPa binding sites. Through sequence comparisons of the human GABPa binding regions with orthologous sequences from 34 mammals, we identified substitutions that have resulted in 224 putative human-specific GABPa binding sites. To experimentally assess the transcriptional impact of those substitutions, we selected four promoters for promoter-reporter gene assays using human and African green monkey cells. We compared the activities of wild-type promoters to mutated forms, where we have introduced one or more substitutions to mimic the ancestral state devoid of the GABPa consensus binding sequence. Similarly, we introduced the human-specific substitutions into chimpanzee and macaque promoter backgrounds. Our results demonstrate that the identified substitutions are functional, both in human and nonhuman promoters. In addition, we performed GABPa knock-down experiments and found 1,215 genes as strong candidates for primary targets. Further analyses of our data sets link GABPa to cognitive disorders, diabetes, KRAB zinc finger (KRAB-ZNF), and human-specific genes. Thus, we propose that differences in GABPa binding sites played important roles in the evolution of human-specific phenotypes.

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