One of the key discoveries of vertebrate genome sequencing projects has been the identification of highly conserved noncoding elements (CNEs). Some characteristics of CNEs include their high frequency in mammalian genomes, their potential regulatory role in gene expression, and their enrichment in gene deserts nearby master developmental genes. The abnormal development of neural crest cells (NCCs) leads to a broad spectrum of congenital malformation(s), termed neurocristopathies, and/or tumor predisposition. Here we review recent findings that disruptions of CNEs, within or at long distance from the coding sequences of key genes involved in NCC development, result in neurocristopathies via the alteration of tissue- or stage-specific long-distance regulation of gene expression. While most studies on human genetic disorders have focused on protein-coding sequences, these examples suggest that investigation of genomic alterations of CNEs will provide a broader understanding of the molecular etiology of both rare and common human congenital malformations.
© 2010 New York Academy of Sciences.