A subset of eukaryotic transcription factors possesses the remarkable ability to reprogram one type of cell into another. The transcription factors that reprogram cell fate are invariably those that are crucial for the initial cell programming in embryonic development. To elicit cell programming or reprogramming, transcription factors must be able to engage genes that are developmentally silenced and inappropriate for expression in the original cell. Developmentally silenced genes are typically embedded in "closed" chromatin that is covered by nucleosomes and not hypersensitive to nuclease probes such as DNase I. Biochemical and genomic studies have shown that transcription factors with the highest reprogramming activity often have the special ability to engage their target sites on nucleosomal DNA, thus behaving as "pioneer factors" to initiate events in closed chromatin. Other reprogramming factors appear dependent on pioneer factors for engaging nucleosomes and closed chromatin. However, certain genomic domains in which nucleosomes are occluded by higher-order chromatin structures, such as in heterochromatin, are resistant to pioneer factor binding. Understanding the means by which pioneer factors can engage closed chromatin and how heterochromatin can prevent such binding promises to advance our ability to reprogram cell fates at will and is the topic of this review.
Keywords: chromatin; development; nucleosome; pioneer transcription factor; reprogramming; transdifferentiation.
© 2014 Iwafuchi-Doi and Zaret; Published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.