Exploratory bioinformatics investigation reveals importance of "junk" DNA in early embryo development.
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Instead of testing predefined hypotheses, the goal of exploratory data analysis (EDA) is to find what data can tell us. Following this strategy, we re-analyzed a large body of genomic data to study the complex gene regulation in mouse pre-implantation development (PD). Starting with a single-cell RNA-seq dataset consisting of 259 mouse embryonic cells derived from zygote to blastocyst stages, we reconstructed the temporal and spatial gene expression pattern during PD. The dynamics of gene expression can be partially explained by the enrichment of transposable elements in gene promoters and the similarity of expression profiles with those of corresponding transposons. Long Terminal Repeats (LTRs) are associated with transient, strong induction of many nearby genes at the 2-4 cell stages, probably by providing binding sites for Obox and other homeobox factors. B1 and B2 SINEs (Short Interspersed Nuclear Elements) are correlated with the upregulation of thousands of nearby genes during zygotic genome activation. Such enhancer-like effects are also found for human Alu and bovine tRNA SINEs. SINEs also seem to be predictive of gene expression in embryonic stem cells (ESCs), raising the possibility that they may also be involved in regulating pluripotency. We also identified many potential transcription factors underlying PD and discussed the evolutionary necessity of transposons in enhancing genetic diversity, especially for species with longer generation time. Together with other recent studies, our results provide further evidence that many transposable elements may play a role in establishing the expression landscape in early embryos. It also demonstrates that exploratory bioinformatics investigation can pinpoint developmental pathways for further study, and serve as a strategy to generate novel insights from big genomic data.


Early embryogenesis
Exploratory data analysis
Pre-implantation development
Repetitive DNA
Single-cell RNA-seq

MeSH terms

Base Sequence
Cluster Analysis
Computational Biology
CpG Islands
DNA Methylation
DNA Transposable Elements
DNA, Intergenic
Embryonic Development
Embryonic Stem Cells
Gene Expression Profiling
Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
Nucleotide Motifs
Organ Specificity
Promoter Regions, Genetic


Ge, Steven Xijin

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