Devika Singh, Bioinformatics Thesis Defense

In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy in Bioinformatics 
in the School of Biological Sciences

Devika Singh

Defends her thesis:
Evolution and architecture of epigenetic regulation in the genome 

Monday, November 29, 2021
2:00 PM Eastern Time
BlueJeans link: 

Thesis Advisors:
Dr. Soojin V. Yi
School of Biological Sciences
Georgia Institute of Technology &
Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology
University of California, Santa Barbara

Dr. I. King Jordan
School of Biological Sciences
Georgia Institute of Technology

Committee Members:
Dr. Joseph L. Lachance
School of Biological Sciences
Georgia Institute of Technology

Dr. Gregory Gibson
School of Biological Sciences
Georgia Institute of Technology

Dr. Peng Qiu
School of Biomedical Engineering
Georgia Institute of Technology 

Epigenetic modifications are genomic alterations which regulate the expression and activity of genes by changing the structure of chromatin. These mechanisms of regulation expand the proportion of the genome that is functional well beyond the comparably rare instances of protein coding genes, which, in humans, only correspond to ~2% of the genome. The aim of this dissertation is to leverage advances in the genomic identification and annotation of epigenetic modifications to explore questions regarding the (1) role of DNA methylation in X chromosome regulation through comparative genomic analyses, and (2) the organization and (3) evolution of human enhancers identified from histone modifications. 

In the first study, we consider the role of DNA methylation in an iconic example of epigenetic regulation, namely X chromosome inactivation (XCI). XCI is the process by which one of the two female X chromosomes is silenced to balance the expression of X-linked genes in male and female genomes and is functionally conserved in two branches of mammals (eutherians and marsupials). In eutherians, it is well established that DNA methylation plays a role in establishing XCI through the silencing of the lncRNA Xist on the active X chromosome as well as in the long-term maintenance of inactive X-linked genes. However, the role of DNA methylation in marsupials remains controversial. We utilize novel multi-tissue Whole Genome Bisulfite Sequencing (WGBS) data coupled with improved genomic annotations to elucidate the role of DNA methylation in X chromosome regulation in a representative marsupial, the modern koala (Phascolarctos cinereus). Consequently, we clarify conserved and divergent patterns of DNA methylation in the regulation of XCI in marsupials and eutherians.

In the following two studies, we integrate multi “-omics” datasets including whole genome chromatin state maps and gene expression data from a diverse set of tissues to elucidate the organization and evolution of human enhancers, a hallmark of the (epi)genomic regulatory landscape. Enhancers are short, mostly non-coding DNA sequences that orchestrate the context- and developmental time-specific expression of associated genes. Enhancers are often studied as highly tissue-specific regulatory elements in what has been deemed a “paradigm of modularity.” However, contrary evidence, indicating that a subset of enhancers may be repurposed in multiple tissue and/or developmental contexts, is mounting. In this study, we characterize the previously unknown frequency and genomic characteristics of these highly “pleiotropic” enhancers. We further evaluate the organization of the larger gene-enhancer interaction network considering (1) the distribution of enhancer pleiotropy, (2) the variations in the number of enhancer-target gene links, and (3) the expression breadth of target genes. 
Furthermore, we explore the evolution of human enhancer through genomic duplication events. Duplications are a canonical reservoir of the raw material needed for the evolution of novel functional elements in the genome and have been studied extensively with respect to genes. The selective processes governing the maintenance of duplicate genes are well characterized, and similar evolutionary mechanisms have been proposed for non-coding regulatory elements. However, whether duplication events affect enhancer evolution and maintenance is currently unknown. Through sequence homology analyses, we identify likely candidate duplicate enhancers in our large dataset to determine the frequency of duplicate enhancer retention in the human genome. Additionally, we determine the characteristics of duplicate enhancers contributing to their evolutionary maintenance. We demonstrate that duplication of enhancers has significant footprint on pleiotropic enhancers and that recently duplicated human enhancers exhibit signatures of accelerated evolution and specialized for immune related functions. 

Together, these studies reveal previously unknown patterns of conservation and divergence of epigenetic regulatory mechanisms along two deep branches of mammals, as well as elucidate the molecular architecture and the impact of duplication on the genomic landscape of enhancer-gene regulation.