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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The role of Transposable Elements in shaping the combinatorial interaction of Transcription Factors

Alessandro Testori13*, Livia Caizzi12, Santina Cutrupi15, Olivier Friard1, Michele De Bortoli13, Davide Cora'14* and Michele Caselle16*

Author Affiliations

1 Center for Molecular Systems Biology, University of Turin, c/o IRCC - Str. Prov. 142 Km. 3.95, Turin, Candiolo, I-10060, Italy

2 Bioindustry Park Silvano Fumero, Colleretto Giacosa, Italy

3 Department Oncological Sciences, University of Turin, Str. Prov. 142 Km. 3.95, Turin, I-10060, Italy

4 Systems Biology Lab, Institute for Cancer Research and Treatment (IRCC), Str. Prov. 142 Km. 3.95, Turin, Candiolo, I-10060, Italy

5 Department of Life Sciences and Systems Biology, University of Turin, v. Acc. Albertina 13, Turin, 10123, Italy

6 Department of Physics, University of Turin, v. P. Giuria 1, Turin, I-10125, Italy

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BMC Genomics 2012, 13:400  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-13-400

Published: 16 August 2012



In the last few years several studies have shown that Transposable Elements (TEs) in the human genome are significantly associated with Transcription Factor Binding Sites (TFBSs) and that in several cases their expansion within the genome led to a substantial rewiring of the regulatory network. Another important feature of the regulatory network which has been thoroughly studied is the combinatorial organization of transcriptional regulation. In this paper we combine these two observations and suggest that TEs, besides rewiring the network, also played a central role in the evolution of particular patterns of combinatorial gene regulation.


To address this issue we searched for TEs overlapping Estrogen Receptor α (ERα) binding peaks in two publicly available ChIP-seq datasets from the MCF7 cell line corresponding to different modalities of exposure to estrogen. We found a remarkable enrichment of a few specific classes of Transposons. Among these a prominent role was played by MIR (Mammalian Interspersed Repeats) transposons. These TEs underwent a dramatic expansion at the beginning of the mammalian radiation and then stabilized. We conjecture that the special affinity of ERα for the MIR class of TEs could be at the origin of the important role assumed by ERα in Mammalians. We then searched for TFBSs within the TEs overlapping ChIP-seq peaks. We found a strong enrichment of a few precise combinations of TFBS. In several cases the corresponding Transcription Factors (TFs) were known cofactors of ERα, thus supporting the idea of a co-regulatory role of TFBS within the same TE. Moreover, most of these correlations turned out to be strictly associated to specific classes of TEs thus suggesting the presence of a well-defined "transposon code" within the regulatory network.


In this work we tried to shed light into the role of Transposable Elements (TEs) in shaping the regulatory network of higher eukaryotes. To test this idea we focused on a particular transcription factor: the Estrogen Receptor α (ERα) and we found that ERα preferentially targets a well defined set of TEs and that these TEs host combinations of transcriptional regulators involving several of known co-regulators of ERα. Moreover, a significant number of these TEs turned out to be conserved between human and mouse and located in the vicinity (and thus candidate to be regulators) of important estrogen-related genes.

Transposable elements; ChIP-seq; Transcription factors; ERα; Combinatorial interaction