The autism risk factor CHD8 is a chromatin activator in human neurons and functionally dependent on the ERK-MAPK pathway effector ELK1

Sci Rep. 2022 Dec 27;12(1):22425. doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-23614-x.


The chromodomain helicase DNA-binding protein CHD8 is the most frequently mutated gene in autism spectrum disorder. Despite its prominent disease involvement, little is known about its molecular function in the human brain. CHD8 is a chromatin regulator which binds to the promoters of actively transcribed genes through genomic targeting mechanisms which have yet to be fully defined. By generating a conditional loss-of-function and an endogenously tagged allele in human pluripotent stem cells, we investigated the molecular function and the interaction of CHD8 with chromatin in human neurons. Chromatin accessibility analysis and transcriptional profiling revealed that CHD8 functions as a transcriptional activator at its target genes in human neurons. Furthermore, we found that CHD8 chromatin targeting is cell context-dependent. In human neurons, CHD8 preferentially binds at ETS motif-enriched promoters. This enrichment is particularly prominent on the promoters of genes whose expression significantly changes upon the loss of CHD8. Indeed, among the ETS transcription factors, we identified ELK1 as being most highly correlated with CHD8 expression in primary human fetal and adult cortical neurons and most highly expressed in our stem cell-derived neurons. Remarkably, ELK1 was necessary to recruit CHD8 specifically to ETS motif-containing sites. These findings imply that ELK1 and CHD8 functionally cooperate to regulate gene expression and chromatin states at MAPK/ERK target genes in human neurons. Our results suggest that the MAPK/ERK/ELK1 axis potentially contributes to the pathogenesis caused by CHD8 mutations in human neurodevelopmental disorders.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / genetics
  • Autistic Disorder* / genetics
  • Autistic Disorder* / metabolism
  • Chromatin / genetics
  • Chromatin / metabolism
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / genetics
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Risk Factors
  • Transcription Factors / metabolism
  • ets-Domain Protein Elk-1 / genetics
  • ets-Domain Protein Elk-1 / metabolism


  • Chromatin
  • ELK1 protein, human
  • ets-Domain Protein Elk-1
  • CHD8 protein, human
  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • Transcription Factors