Chromatin is a well-known obstacle to transcription as it controls DNA accessibility, which directly impacts the recruitment of the transcriptional machinery. The recent burst of functional genomic studies provides new clues as to how transcriptional competency is regulated in this context. In this review, we discuss how these studies have shed light on a specialized subset of transcription factors, defined as pioneer factors, which direct recruitment of downstream transcription factors to establish lineage-specific transcriptional programs. In particular, we present evidence of an interplay between pioneer factors and the epigenome that could be central to this process. Finally, we discuss how pioneer factors, whose expression and function are altered in tumors, are also being considered for their prognostic value and should therefore be regarded as potential therapeutic targets. Thus, pioneer factors emerge as key players that connect the epigenome and transcription in health and disease.
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