Regulation of chromatin structure, Smad binding and AFP expression by the Forkhead box transcription factor: Foxa1

Joseph Harvey Taube, The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston


Transcription factors must be able to access their DNA binding sites to either activate or repress transcription. However, DNA wrapping and compaction into chromatin occludes most binding sites from ready access by proteins. Pioneer transcription factors are capable of binding their DNA elements within a condensed chromatin context and then reducing the level of nucleosome occupancy so that the chromatin structure is more accessible. This altered accessibility increases the probability of other transcription factors binding to their own DNA binding elements. My hypothesis is that Foxa1, a ‘pioneer’ transcription factor, activates alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) expression by binding DNA in a chromatinized environment, reducing the nucleosome occupancy and facilitating binding of additional transcription factors. Using retinoic-acid differentiated mouse embryonic stem cells, we illustrate a mechanism for activation of the tumor marker AFP by the pioneer transcription factor Foxa1 and TGF-β downstream effector transcription factors Smad2 and Smad4. In differentiating embryonic stem cells, binding of the Foxa1 forkhead box transcription factor to chromatin reduces nucleosome occupancy and levels of linker histone H1 at the AFP distal promoter. The more accessible DNA is subsequently bound by the Smad2 and Smad4 transcription factors, concurrent with activation of transcription. Chromatin immunoprecipitation analyses combined with siRNA-mediated knockdown indicate that Smad protein binding and the reduction of nucleosome occupancy at the AFP distal promoter is dependent on Foxa1. In addition to facilitating transcription factor binding, Foxa1 is also associated with histone modifications related to active gene expression. Acetylation of lysine 9 on histone H3, a mark that is associated active transcription, is dependent on Foxa1, while methylation of H3K4, also associated with active transcription, is independent of Foxa1. I propose that Foxa1 potentiates a region of chromatin to respond to Smad proteins, leading to active expression of AFP. These studies demonstrate one mechanism whereby a transcription factor can alter the accessibility of additional transcription factors to chromatin, by altering nucleosome positions. Specifically, Foxa1 exposes DNA so that Smad4 can bind to its regulatory element and activate transcription of the tumor-marker gene AFP.

Subject Area

Molecular biology

Recommended Citation

Taube, Joseph Harvey, "Regulation of chromatin structure, Smad binding and AFP expression by the Forkhead box transcription factor: Foxa1" (2009). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI3358132.