The CFTR (cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator) gene is a tightly regulated and differentially expressed transcript in many mucosal epithelial cell types. It appears that DNA sequence variations alone do not explain CFTR-related gastrointestinal disease patterns and that epigenetic modifiers influence CFTR expression. Our aim was to characterize the native chromatin environment in cultured cells for intestinal CFTR expression by determining the relationship between histone acetylation and occupation of CFTR by multiple transcription factors, through a common regulatory element. We used HDAC (histone deacetylase) inhibition and ChIP (chromatin immunoprecipitation) analyses to define regions associated with acute acetylation of histone at the CFTR locus. We identified a region within the first intron associated with acute acetylation of histone H4 as an epigenetic signature corresponding to an intestine-specific enhancer element for CFTR. DHS (DNase I-hypersensitivity) assays and ChIP were used to specify control elements and occupation by regulatory factors. Quantitative ChIP procedures indicate that HNF1α (hepatic nuclear factor 1α) and Cdx2 (caudal homeobox protein 2) occupy and regulate through a novel intronic enhancer element of CFTR and that Tcf4 (T-cell factor 4) overlaps the same DNA element. RNAi (RNA interference) of Tcf4 and HNF1α decreased intestinal cell CFTR expression, identifying these as positive regulatory factors and CFTR as a target for Wnt signalling. We have linked the acetylation signature of nucleosomal histones to active intestinal CFTR expression and occupation by transcription factors HNF1α, Cdx2 and Tcf4 which converge to modify chromatin architecture. These studies suggest the therapeutic potential of histone modification strategies, such as inhibition of HDAC activity, to treat CFTR-associated disease by selectively enhancing CFTR expression.

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