Transcriptional enhancers in protein-coding exons of vertebrate developmental genes.

Document Type


Publication Date



Animals, Enhancer Elements, Genetic, Exons, Genes, Developmental, Humans, Vertebrates, Zebrafish

JAX Source

PLoS One 2012; 7(5):e35202




Many conserved noncoding sequences function as transcriptional enhancers that regulate gene expression. Here, we report that protein-coding DNA also frequently contains enhancers functioning at the transcriptional level. We tested the enhancer activity of 31 protein-coding exons, which we chose based on strong sequence conservation between zebrafish and human, and occurrence in developmental genes, using a Tol2 transposable GFP reporter assay in zebrafish. For each exon we measured GFP expression in hundreds of embryos in 10 anatomies via a novel system that implements the voice-recognition capabilities of a cellular phone. We find that 24/31 (77%) exons drive GFP expression compared to a minimal promoter control, and 14/24 are anatomy-specific (expression in four anatomies or less). GFP expression driven by these coding enhancers frequently overlaps the anatomies where the host gene is expressed (60%), suggesting self-regulation. Highly conserved coding sequences and highly conserved noncoding sequences do not significantly differ in enhancer activity (coding: 24/31 vs. noncoding: 105/147) or tissue-specificity (coding: 14/24 vs. noncoding: 50/105). Furthermore, coding and noncoding enhancers display similar levels of the enhancer-related histone modification H3K4me1 (coding: 9/24 vs noncoding: 34/81). Meanwhile, coding enhancers are over three times as likely to contain an H3K4me1 mark as other exons of the host gene. Our work suggests that developmental transcriptional enhancers do not discriminate between coding and noncoding DNA and reveals widespread dual functions in protein-coding DNA.