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Stable enhancers are active in development, and fragile enhancers are associated with evolutionary adaptation.

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Despite continual progress in the identification and characterization of trait- and disease-associated variants that disrupt transcription factor (TF)-DNA binding, little is known about the distribution of TF binding deactivating mutations (deMs) in enhancer sequences. Here, we focus on elucidating the mechanism underlying the different densities of deMs in human enhancers.


We identify two classes of enhancers based on the density of nucleotides prone to deMs. Firstly, fragile enhancers with abundant deM nucleotides are associated with the immune system and regular cellular maintenance. Secondly, stable enhancers with only a few deM nucleotides are associated with the development and regulation of TFs and are evolutionarily conserved. These two classes of enhancers feature different regulatory programs: the binding sites of pioneer TFs of FOX family are specifically enriched in stable enhancers, while tissue-specific TFs are enriched in fragile enhancers. Moreover, stable enhancers are more tolerant of deMs due to their dominant employment of homotypic TF binding site (TFBS) clusters, as opposed to the larger-extent usage of heterotypic TFBS clusters in fragile enhancers. Notably, the sequence environment and chromatin context of the cognate motif, other than the motif itself, contribute more to the susceptibility to deMs of TF binding.


This dichotomy of enhancer activity is conserved across different tissues, has a specific footprint in epigenetic profiles, and argues for a bimodal evolution of gene regulatory programs in vertebrates. Specifically encoded stable enhancers are evolutionarily conserved and associated with development, while differently encoded fragile enhancers are associated with the adaptation of species.

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