Topologically associated domains: a successful scaffold for the evolution of gene regulation in animals

Wiley Interdiscip Rev Dev Biol. 2017 May;6(3). doi: 10.1002/wdev.265. Epub 2017 Mar 2.


The evolution of gene regulation is considered one of the main drivers causing the astonishing morphological diversity in the animal kingdom. Gene regulation in animals heavily depends upon cis-regulatory elements, discrete pieces of DNA that interact with target promoters to regulate gene expression. In the last years, Chromosome Conformation Capture experiments (4C-seq, 5C, and HiC) in several organisms have shown that the genomes of many bilaterian animals are organized in the 3D chromatin space in compartments called topologically associated domains (TADs). The appearance of the architectural protein CTCF in the bilaterian ancestor likely facilitated the origin of this chromatin 3D organization. TADs play a critical role favoring the contact of cis-regulatory elements with their proper target promoters (that often lay within the same TAD) and preventing undesired regulatory interactions with promoters located in neighboring TADs. We propose that TAD may have had a major influence in the history of the evolution of gene regulation. They have contributed to the increment of regulatory complexity in bilaterians by allowing newly evolved cis-regulatory elements to find target promoters in a range of hundreds of kilobases. In addition, they have conditioned the mechanisms of evolution of gene regulation. These mechanisms include the appearance, removal, or relocation of TAD borders. Such architectural changes have been able to wire or unwire promoters with different sets of cis-regulatory elements in a single mutational event. We discuss the contribution of these architectural changes to the generation of critical genomic 3D structures required for new regulatory mechanisms associated to morphological novelties. WIREs Dev Biol 2017, 6:e265. doi: 10.1002/wdev.265 For further resources related to this article, please visit the WIREs website.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Chromatin / genetics*
  • Gene Expression Regulation*
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic / genetics*


  • Chromatin