Complex small-world regulatory networks emerge from the 3D organisation of the human genome

CA Brackley and N Gilbert and D Michieletto and A Papantonis and MCF Pereira and PR Cook and D Marenduzzo, NATURE COMMUNICATIONS, 12, 5756 (2021).

DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-25875-y

The discovery that overexpressing one or a few critical transcription factors can switch cell state suggests that gene regulatory networks are relatively simple. In contrast, genome-wide association studies (GWAS) point to complex phenotypes being determined by hundreds of loci that rarely encode transcription factors and which individually have small effects. Here, we use computer simulations and a simple fitting-free polymer model of chromosomes to show that spatial correlations arising from 3D genome organisation naturally lead to stochastic and bursty transcription as well as complex small-world regulatory networks (where the transcriptional activity of each genomic region subtly affects almost all others). These effects require factors to be present at sub- saturating levels; increasing levels dramatically simplifies networks as more transcription units are pressed into use. Consequently, results from GWAS can be reconciled with those involving overexpression. We apply this pan-genomic model to predict patterns of transcriptional activity in whole human chromosomes, and, as an example, the effects of the deletion causing the diGeorge syndrome. Gene-regulatory networks are thought to be complex, and yet perturbation of just a few transcription factors (TFs) can have major consequences. Here the authors apply DNA polymer modelling and simulations to predict how 3D genome structure and TF-DNA interactions can give rise to transcriptional regulation operating over broad genomic regions, where small perturbations can have long-reaching effects.

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