X chromosome inactivation (XCI) is an essential process, yet it initiates with remarkable diversity in various mammalian species. XIST, the main trigger of XCI, is controlled in the mouse by an interplay of lncRNA genes (LRGs), some of which evolved concomitantly to XIST and have orthologues across all placental mammals. Here, we addressed the functional conservation of human orthologues of two such LRGs, FTX and JPX. By combining analysis of single-cell RNA-seq data from early human embryogenesis with various functional assays in matched human and mouse pluripotent stem- or differentiated post-XCI cells, we demonstrate major functional differences for these orthologues between species, independently of primary sequence conservation. While the function of FTX is not conserved in humans, JPX stands as a major regulator of XIST expression in both species. However, we show that different entities of JPX control the production of XIST at various steps depending on the species. Altogether, our study highlights the functional versatility of LRGs across evolution, and reveals that functional conservation of orthologous LRGs may involve diversified mechanisms of action. These findings represent a striking example of how the evolvability of LRGs can provide adaptative flexibility to constrained gene regulatory networks.
© The Author(s) 2023. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Nucleic Acids Research.