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Mutagenesis of GATA motifs controlling the endoderm regulator elt-2 reveals distinct dominant and secondary cis-regulatory elements.

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Cis-regulatory elements (CREs) are crucial links in developmental gene regulatory networks, but in many cases, it can be difficult to discern whether similar CREs are functionally equivalent. We found that despite similar conservation and binding capability to upstream activators, different GATA cis-regulatory motifs within the promoter of the C. elegans endoderm regulator elt-2 play distinctive roles in activating and modulating gene expression throughout development. We fused wild-type and mutant versions of the elt-2 promoter to a gfp reporter and inserted these constructs as single copies into the C. elegans genome. We then counted early embryonic gfp transcripts using single-molecule RNA FISH (smFISH) and quantified gut GFP fluorescence. We determined that a single primary dominant GATA motif located 527bp upstream of the elt-2 start codon was necessary for both embryonic activation and later maintenance of transcription, while nearby secondary GATA motifs played largely subtle roles in modulating postembryonic levels of elt-2. Mutation of the primary activating site increased low-level spatiotemporally ectopic stochastic transcription, indicating that this site acts repressively in non-endoderm cells. Our results reveal that CREs with similar GATA factor binding affinities in close proximity can play very divergent context-dependent roles in regulating the expression of a developmentally critical gene in vivo.

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