Tandem CTCF sites function as insulators to balance spatial chromatin contacts and topological enhancer-promoter selection

Genome Biol. 2020 Mar 23;21(1):75. doi: 10.1186/s13059-020-01984-7.


Background: CTCF is a key insulator-binding protein, and mammalian genomes contain numerous CTCF sites, many of which are organized in tandem.

Results: Using CRISPR DNA-fragment editing, in conjunction with chromosome conformation capture, we find that CTCF sites, if located between enhancers and promoters in the protocadherin (Pcdh) and β-globin clusters, function as an enhancer-blocking insulator by forming distinct directional chromatin loops, regardless whether enhancers contain CTCF sites or not. Moreover, computational simulation in silico and genetic deletions in vivo as well as dCas9 blocking in vitro revealed balanced promoter usage in cell populations and stochastic monoallelic expression in single cells by large arrays of tandem CTCF sites in the Pcdh and immunoglobulin heavy chain (Igh) clusters. Furthermore, CTCF insulators promote, counter-intuitively, long-range chromatin interactions with distal directional CTCF sites, consistent with the cohesin "loop extrusion" model. Finally, gene expression levels are negatively correlated with CTCF insulators located between enhancers and promoters on a genome-wide scale. Thus, single CTCF insulators ensure proper enhancer insulation and promoter activation while tandem CTCF topological insulators determine balanced spatial contacts and promoter choice.

Conclusions: These findings have interesting implications on the role of topological chromatin insulators in 3D genome folding and developmental gene regulation.

Keywords: 3D genome; Bayesian networks; CTCF; Chromatin polymer simulation; Cohesin; Gene regulation; Insulator; Loop extrusion; Promoter/enhancer selection; Topological spatial contacts.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Binding Sites
  • CCCTC-Binding Factor / metabolism*
  • Cadherin Related Proteins
  • Cadherins / genetics
  • Chromatin / chemistry
  • Enhancer Elements, Genetic*
  • Insulator Elements*
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic*
  • beta-Globins / genetics


  • CCCTC-Binding Factor
  • Cadherin Related Proteins
  • Cadherins
  • Chromatin
  • Gamma-protocadherins
  • beta-Globins