Despang A, Schöpflin R, Franke M, Ali S, Jerković I, Paliou C, Chan WL, Timmermann B, Wittler L, Vingron M, Mundlos S, Ibrahim DM
The genome is organized in three-dimensional units called topologically associating domains (TADs), through a process dependent on the cooperative action of cohesin and the DNA-binding factor CTCF. Genomic rearrangements of TADs have been shown to cause gene misexpression and disease, but genome-wide depletion of CTCF has no drastic effects on transcription. Here, we investigate TAD function in vivo in mouse limb buds at the Sox9-Kcnj2 locus. We show that the removal of all major CTCF sites at the boundary and within the TAD resulted in a fusion of neighboring TADs, without major effects on gene expression. Gene misexpression and disease phenotypes, however, were achieved by redirecting regulatory activity through inversions and/or the repositioning of boundaries. Thus, TAD structures provide robustness and precision but are not essential for developmental gene regulation. Aberrant disease-related gene activation is not induced by a mere loss of insulation but requires CTCF-dependent redirection of enhancer-promoter contacts.