Phase separation of ligand-activated enhancers licenses cooperative chromosomal enhancer assembly

Nat Struct Mol Biol. 2019 Mar;26(3):193-203. doi: 10.1038/s41594-019-0190-5. Epub 2019 Mar 4.


A crucial feature of differentiated cells is the rapid activation of enhancer-driven transcriptional programs in response to signals. The potential contributions of physicochemical properties of enhancer assembly in signaling events remain poorly understood. Here we report that in human breast cancer cells, the acute 17β-estradiol-dependent activation of functional enhancers requires assembly of an enhancer RNA-dependent ribonucleoprotein (eRNP) complex exhibiting properties of phase-separated condensates. Unexpectedly, while acute ligand-dependent assembly of eRNPs resulted in enhancer activation sensitive to chemical disruption of phase separation, chronically activated enhancers proved resistant to such disruption, with progressive maturation of eRNPs to a more gel-like state. Acute, but not chronic, stimulation resulted in ligand-induced, condensin-dependent changes in spatial chromatin conformation based on homotypic enhancer association, resulting in cooperative enhancer-activation events. Thus, distinct physicochemical properties of eRNP condensates on enhancers serve as determinants of rapid ligand-dependent alterations in chromosomal architecture and cooperative enhancer activation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Chromatin
  • Chromosomes / physiology
  • Enhancer Elements, Genetic / genetics*
  • Estradiol / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • MCF-7 Cells
  • Protein Conformation
  • Ribonucleoproteins / metabolism*
  • Transcription, Genetic / genetics
  • Transcriptional Activation / genetics
  • Transcriptional Activation / physiology*


  • Chromatin
  • Ribonucleoproteins
  • Estradiol