Information about developmental gene expression resides in defined regulatory elements, called enhancers, in the non-coding part of the genome. Although cells reliably utilize enhancers to orchestrate gene expression, a cis-regulatory code that would allow their interpretation has remained one of the greatest challenges of modern biology. In this review, we summarize studies from the past three decades that describe progress towards revealing the properties of enhancers and discuss how recent approaches are providing unprecedented insights into regulatory elements in animal genomes. Over the next years, we believe that the functional characterization of regulatory sequences in entire genomes, combined with recent computational methods, will provide a comprehensive view of genomic regulatory elements and their building blocks and will enable researchers to begin to understand the sequence basis of the cis-regulatory code.
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