Glucocorticoid signaling in pancreatic islets modulates gene regulatory programs and genetic risk of type 2 diabetes

PLoS Genet. 2021 May 13;17(5):e1009531. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1009531. eCollection 2021 May.


Glucocorticoids are key regulators of glucose homeostasis and pancreatic islet function, but the gene regulatory programs driving responses to glucocorticoid signaling in islets and the contribution of these programs to diabetes risk are unknown. In this study we used ATAC-seq and RNA-seq to map chromatin accessibility and gene expression from eleven primary human islet samples cultured in vitro with the glucocorticoid dexamethasone at multiple doses and durations. We identified thousands of accessible chromatin sites and genes with significant changes in activity in response to glucocorticoids. Chromatin sites up-regulated in glucocorticoid signaling were prominently enriched for glucocorticoid receptor binding sites and up-regulated genes were enriched for ion transport and lipid metabolism, whereas down-regulated chromatin sites and genes were enriched for inflammatory, stress response and proliferative processes. Genetic variants associated with glucose levels and T2D risk were enriched in glucocorticoid-responsive chromatin sites, including fine-mapped variants at 51 known signals. Among fine-mapped variants in glucocorticoid-responsive chromatin, a likely casual variant at the 2p21 locus had glucocorticoid-dependent allelic effects on beta cell enhancer activity and affected SIX2 and SIX3 expression. Our results provide a comprehensive map of islet regulatory programs in response to glucocorticoids through which we uncover a role for islet glucocorticoid signaling in mediating genetic risk of T2D.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood Glucose / metabolism
  • Cell Line
  • Chromatin / genetics
  • Chromatin / metabolism
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / blood
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / genetics*
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / metabolism*
  • Gene Regulatory Networks*
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease*
  • Glucocorticoids / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Islets of Langerhans / metabolism*
  • Mice
  • Signal Transduction*


  • Blood Glucose
  • Chromatin
  • Glucocorticoids