PI3K signaling specifies proximal-distal fate by driving a developmental gene regulatory network in SOX9+ mouse lung progenitors

Elife. 2022 Aug 17;11:e67954. doi: 10.7554/eLife.67954.


The tips of the developing respiratory buds are home to important progenitor cells marked by the expression of SOX9 and ID2. Early in embryonic development (prior to E13.5), SOX9+progenitors are multipotent, generating both airway and alveolar epithelium, but are selective progenitors of alveolar epithelial cells later in development. Transcription factors, including Sox9, Etv5, Irx, Mycn, and Foxp1/2 interact in complex gene regulatory networks to control proliferation and differentiation of SOX9+progenitors. Molecular mechanisms by which these transcription factors and other signaling pathways control chromatin state to establish and maintain cell-type identity are not well-defined. Herein, we analyze paired gene expression (RNA-Seq) and chromatin accessibility (ATAC-Seq) data from SOX9+ epithelial progenitor cells (EPCs) during embryonic development in Mus musculus. Widespread changes in chromatin accessibility were observed between E11.5 and E16.5, particularly at distal cis-regulatory elements (e.g. enhancers). Gene regulatory network (GRN) inference identified a common SOX9+ progenitor GRN, implicating phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3K) signaling in the developmental regulation of SOX9+ progenitor cells. Consistent with this model, conditional ablation of PI3K signaling in the developing lung epithelium in mouse resulted in an expansion of the SOX9+ EPC population and impaired airway epithelial cell differentiation. These data demonstrate that PI3K signaling is required for epithelial patterning during lung organogenesis, and emphasize the combinatorial power of paired RNA and ATAC seq in defining regulatory networks in development.

Keywords: ATAC-Seq; chromatin accessibility; developmental biology; epigenomics; genetics; genomics; lung development; lung distal tip progenitor cells; mouse.

Plain language summary

Studying how lungs develop has helped us understand and treat often-devastating lung diseases. This includes diseases like cystic fibrosis which result from spelling mistakes known as mutations in a person’s genetic code. However, not all lung diseases involve mutations. Many other diseases, in both adults and children, are caused by genes failing to switch on or off at some point during lung development. DNA is surrounded by various proteins which package it into a compressed structure known as chromatin. Cells can control which genes are turned on or off by modifying how tightly packed parts of the genetic code are within chromatin. Changes in chromatin accessibility, also known as ‘epigenetic’ changes, are a normal part of development, and guide cells towards specific jobs or identities as an organ matures. However, how this happens in the developing lung is poorly understood. Here, Khattar, Fernandes et al. set out to determine how chromatin accessibility shapes development of the tissue lining the lungs, focusing on a group of progenitor cells which produce the protein SOX9. These cells are initially found at the tips of the early lung, where they go on to develop into the cells that line the whole of the mature organ. Initial experiments used large-scale genetic techniques to measure gene activity and chromatin accessibility simultaneously in progenitor cells extracted from the lungs of mice. Khattar, Fernandes et al. were then able to predict the signaling pathways that shape the lung lining based on which genes were surrounded by unpacked chromatin, and determine the proteins responsible for these epigenetic changes. This included the signaling pathway Phosphatidylinositol 3 kinase (PI3K) which is involved in a number of cellular processes. Additional experiments in mice confirmed that the PI3K pathway became active very early in lung development and remained so until adulthood. In contrast, mice lacking a gene that codes for a key part of the PI3K pathway had defective lungs which failed to develop a proper lining. The data generated in this study will provide an important resource for future studies investigating how epigenetic changes drive normal lung development. Khattar, Fernandes et al. hope that this knowledge will help researchers to better understand the cause of human lung diseases, and identify already available ‘epigenetic drugs’ which could be repurposed to treat them.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Differentiation / genetics
  • Chromatin
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Gene Regulatory Networks*
  • Lung
  • Mice
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinase / genetics
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases* / genetics
  • Pregnancy


  • Chromatin
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinase

Associated data

  • GEO/GSE188230
  • GEO/GSE188237
  • GEO/GSE188239