While the long noncoding RNAs (ncRNAs) constitute a large portion of the mammalian transcriptome, their biological functions has remained elusive. A few long ncRNAs that have been studied in any detail silence gene expression in processes such as X-inactivation and imprinting. We used a GENCODE annotation of the human genome to characterize over a thousand long ncRNAs that are expressed in multiple cell lines. Unexpectedly, we found an enhancer-like function for a set of these long ncRNAs in human cell lines. Depletion of a number of ncRNAs led to decreased expression of their neighboring protein-coding genes, including the master regulator of hematopoiesis, SCL (also called TAL1), Snai1 and Snai2. Using heterologous transcription assays we demonstrated a requirement for the ncRNAs in activation of gene expression. These results reveal an unanticipated role for a class of long ncRNAs in activation of critical regulators of development and differentiation.
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