Demystifying the secret mission of enhancers: Linking distal regulatory elements to target genes

Lijing Yao, Benjamin P. Berman, Peggy J. Farnham*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

62 Scopus citations


Enhancers are short regulatory sequences bound by sequence-specific transcription factors and play a major role in the spatiotemporal specificity of gene expression patterns in development and disease. While it is now possible to identify enhancer regions genomewide in both cultured cells and primary tissues using epigenomic approaches, it has been more challenging to develop methods to understand the function of individual enhancers because enhancers are located far from the gene(s) that they regulate. However, it is essential to identify target genes of enhancers not only so that we can understand the role of enhancers in disease but also because this information will assist in the development of future therapeutic options. After reviewing models of enhancer function, we discuss recent methods for identifying target genes of enhancers. First, we describe chromatin structure-based approaches for directly mapping interactions between enhancers and promoters. Second, we describe the use of correlation-based approaches to link enhancer state with the activity of nearby promoters and/or gene expression. Third, we describe how to test the function of specific enhancers experimentally by perturbing enhancer-target relationships using high-throughput reporter assays and genome editing. Finally, we conclude by discussing as yet unanswered questions concerning how enhancers function, how target genes can be identified, and how to distinguish direct from indirect changes in gene expression mediated by individual enhancers.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)550-573
Number of pages24
JournalCritical Reviews in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2 Nov 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 The Author(s). Published by Taylor & Francis.


  • Chromatin interactions
  • computational tools
  • enhancers
  • gene expression
  • genome editing


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