Background: Developmental programs are implemented by regulatory interactions between Transcription Factors (TFs) and their target genes, which remain poorly understood. While recent studies have focused on regulatory cascades of TFs that govern early development, little is known about how the ultimate effectors of cell differentiation are selected and controlled. We addressed this question during late Drosophila embryogenesis, when the finely tuned expression of the TF Ovo/Shavenbaby (Svb) triggers the morphological differentiation of epidermal trichomes.
Results: We defined a sizeable set of genes downstream of Svb and used in vivo assays to delineate 14 enhancers driving their specific expression in trichome cells. Coupling computational modeling to functional dissection, we investigated the regulatory logic of these enhancers. Extending the repertoire of epidermal effectors using genome-wide approaches showed that the regulatory models learned from this first sample are representative of the whole set of trichome enhancers. These enhancers harbor remarkable features with respect to their functional architectures, including a weak or non-existent clustering of Svb binding sites. The in vivo function of each site relies on its intimate context, notably the flanking nucleotides. Two additional cis-regulatory motifs, present in a broad diversity of composition and positioning among trichome enhancers, critically contribute to enhancer activity.
Conclusions: Our results show that Svb directly regulates a large set of terminal effectors of the remodeling of epidermal cells. Further, these data reveal that trichome formation is underpinned by unexpectedly diverse modes of regulation, providing fresh insights into the functional architecture of enhancers governing a terminal differentiation program.