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Julie Ahringer

ahringerJulie Ahringer PhD FMedSci, Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow, Professor of Genetics and Genomics, Member of the Genetics Department

Ahringer Group website | Europe PMC | Pubmed




The regulation of chromatin structure and function

ahringer 2013Chromatin regulation plays a central role in transcriptional control and genome organisation, and also impacts mRNA post-transcriptional events. C elegans is an excellent system for studies of chromatin function due to its small well-annotated genome, powerful RNAi technology, and rich resource of chromatin mutants. We generated and analysed a genome-wide map of 18 histone modifications, finding that modifications are organised into broad domains that differently mark the central and distal regions and that genes are locally organised into active and inactive blocks. We also discovered specific modifications that mark exons and the X-chromosome, and that the latter is important for global downregulation of X-linked gene expression during dosage compensation. We are studying the functions of histone modifications in transcriptional and post-transcriptional processes.

It has recently been shown that RNA Polymerase II transcription is far more extensive than previously thought, much of it not associated with protein-coding genes. To investigate this phenomenon, we recently carried out the first global mapping of transcription initiation and elongation in C elegans. We found that transcription initiation is usually bidirectional and that the majority of initiation events occur in regions with enhancer-like chromatin signatures. These regions show a novel regulatory architecture, whereby upstream enhancers are transcribed towards and in the same orientation at that of the nearest downstream gene.

We also study the functions of C elegans counterparts of major chromatin regulatory complexes implicated in human disease, including the histone deacetylase complex NuRD, the Retinoblastoma complex DRM, and a TIP60 histone acetyltransferase complex. We investigate the function of these proteins in transcriptional control and development using chromatin immunoprecipitation followed by deep sequencing, global mRNA expression analyses and other genetic and genomic methods.

We recently completed 17 systematic genetic interaction RNAi screens for cell polarity genes. In the resulting functional map of 184 genes, 72% were not previously linked to cell polarity and 80% have human homologs. This network should be widely applicable across animals given the conservation known cell polarity mechanisms.


Selected publications:

• Chen RA-J, Down TA, Stempor P, Chen QB, Egelhofer TA, Hillier LW, Jeffers TE and Ahringer J (2013) The landscape of RNA polymerase II transcription initiation in C. elegans reveals enhancer and promoter architectures, Genome Research 8, 1339-47

• Fievet BT*, Rodriguez J*, Naganathan S, Lee C, Zeiser E, Ishidate,T, Shirayama M, Grill S and Ahringer J (2012) Systematic genetic interaction screens uncover cell polarity regulators and functional redundancy. Nature Cell Biology 15 (1), 103-112

• Vielle A, Lang J, Dong Y, Ercan S, Kotwaliwale C, Rechtsteiner A, Appert A, Chen QB, Dose A, Egelhofer T, Stempor P, Dernburg A, Lieb J, Strome S and Ahringer J (2012) H4K20me1 contributes to downregulation of X-linked genes for C. elegans dosage compensation. PLoS Genetics (9): e1002933

• Kolasinska-Zwierz P, Down T, Latorre I, Liu T, Liu XS and Ahringer J (2009) Differential chromatin marking of introns and expressed exons by H3K36me3. Nature Genetics 41, 376-381

• Gerstein MB, modENCODE Consortium, Ahringer J, Strome S, Gunsalus KC, Micklem G, Liu XS, Reinke V, Kim SK, Hillier LW, Henikoff S, Piano F, Snyder M, Stein L, Lieb JD, Waterston RH. (2010) Integrative Analysis of the Caenorhabditis elegans Genome by the modENCODE Project. Science 330, 1775-87.


Plain English

The DNA of our genome is found in the nucleus and is bound by many different proteins in a conglomeration termed chromatin. Within chromatin, these proteins regulate everything that happens to the genome, for example they repair it when it is damaged, and they turn the appropriate genes on or off. We now know that human diseases can be caused by defects in chromatin, including developmental defects, ageing, and cancer, and drugs that target chromatin proteins have shown promise in cancer treatment. However the functions of few chromatin proteins are understood. Deepening our basic knowledge of chromatin is critical for understanding normal development and has potential highlight new therapeutic avenues.

We are studying chromatin function in the model organism C. elegans, a small nematode that has many advantageous experimental features. Importantly, the chromatin proteins of C. elegans are very similar to those of humans. We study the structure and function of C. elegans chromatin and investigate the functions of C. elegans counterparts of chromatin proteins implicated in human disease. Our work will improve our basic knowledge of how the genome works and further our understanding of chromatin proteins important for human health.


Alex Appert • Fanélie Bauer • Chiara Cerrato • Yan Dong • Tessa Gaarenstroom • Csenge Gal • Ni Huang • Jürgen Jänes • Florence Leroy • Alicia McMurchy • Wei Qiang Seow • Przemyslaw Stempor