Anti-sense transcription originating upstream of mammalian protein-coding genes is a well-documented phenomenon, but remarkably little is known about the regulation or function of anti-sense promoters and the non-coding RNAs they generate. Here we define at nucleotide resolution the divergent transcription start sites (TSSs) near mouse mRNA genes. We find that coupled sense and anti-sense TSSs precisely define the boundaries of a nucleosome-depleted region (NDR) that is highly enriched in transcription factor (TF) motifs. Notably, as the distance between sense and anti-sense TSSs increases, so does the size of the NDR, the level of signal-dependent TF binding, and gene activation. We further discover a group of anti-sense TSSs in macrophages with an enhancer-like chromatin signature. Interestingly, this signature identifies divergent promoters that are activated during immune challenge. We propose that anti-sense promoters serve as platforms for TF binding and establishment of active chromatin to further regulate or enhance sense-strand mRNA expression.
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