Enhancer–promoter interactions are encoded by complex genomic signatures on looping chromatin

Journal name:
Nature Genetics
Year published:
Published online


Discriminating the gene target of a distal regulatory element from other nearby transcribed genes is a challenging problem with the potential to illuminate the causal underpinnings of complex diseases. We present TargetFinder, a computational method that reconstructs regulatory landscapes from diverse features along the genome. The resulting models accurately predict individual enhancer–promoter interactions across multiple cell lines with a false discovery rate up to 15 times smaller than that obtained using the closest gene. By evaluating the genomic features driving this accuracy, we uncover interactions between structural proteins, transcription factors, epigenetic modifications, and transcription that together distinguish interacting from non-interacting enhancer–promoter pairs. Most of this signature is not proximal to the enhancers and promoters but instead decorates the looping DNA. We conclude that complex but consistent combinations of marks on the one-dimensional genome encode the three-dimensional structure of fine-scale regulatory interactions.

At a glance


  1. Predictive power of promoter-proximal genomic features.
    Figure 1: Predictive power of promoter-proximal genomic features.

    (ah) Ratio of various ChIP-seq signals, including Pol II (POLR2A) (a), enhancer- and promoter-associated histone modifications (bd), known looping factors (e,f), and selected transcription factors (g,h), anchored at the TSS of interacting versus non-interacting promoters in K562 cells, along with the log2-transformed fold change (L2FC) and P value corrected for multiple testing (q value). All promoters have active chromatin marks and show transcription. The top row shows expected patterns for promoter-associated marks at the TSS, such as a high ratio of H3K4me3 to H3K4me1. Some of these marks are enriched in interacting promoters, whereas others such as lysine 4 methylation patterns are not. The bottom row shows TSS-proximal patterns for several proteins associated with chromatin looping. CTCF and RAD21 are enriched at interacting promoters, whereas the transcription factors CUX1 and HCFC1 are enriched and depleted, respectively.

  2. Ratio of the CTCF and RAD21 ChIP-seq signals occurring within interacting enhancers and non-interacting enhancers, anchored at peaks for CTCF, RAD21, and the transcription factors CUX1 and HCFC1 for the K562 cell line.
    Figure 2: Ratio of the CTCF and RAD21 ChIP-seq signals occurring within interacting enhancers and non-interacting enhancers, anchored at peaks for CTCF, RAD21, and the transcription factors CUX1 and HCFC1 for the K562 cell line.

    CUX1 and HCFC1 are highly enriched at loop-associated enhancers when co-occurring with CTCF and RAD21. The context dependence of protein binding is demonstrated by RAD21, which is not enriched at interacting promoters (Fig. 1). Note that CTCF and RAD21 are already enriched at their respective peaks within interacting enhancers but are further enriched when anchored at CUX1 or HCFC1 peaks.

  3. Predicting a chromatin loop that skips over multiple active promoters in K562 cells.
    Figure 3: Predicting a chromatin loop that skips over multiple active promoters in K562 cells.

    ENCODE-called peaks are shown for the top nine predictive data sets of an interacting promoter (P1) and enhancer (E1) in K562 cells, separated by other active promoters and enhancers. Active enhancers are segments marked 'E' by combined ChromHMM and Segway annotations, and active promoters are segments marked 'TSS' and expressed in K562 cells with RPKM >0.3. Ensembl genes are also displayed, with introns denoted as thin lines and exons denoted as rectangles. The left and right fragments of the Hi-C assay are also shown to visually confirm that E1 interacts with P1. This figure shows a straightforward example of an enhancer (E1) looping over multiple active promoters (P2–P4) to reach its true target (P1). Existing interactions in the window between E1 and P1 do not block looping, and P1 is the target of other distal regulatory elements within the window. P2–P4 are each missing a looping-associated RAD21 mark that has elevated predictive importance in this cell line. In addition, P2 and P3 are missing the highly predictive CUX1 transcription factor (Fig. 2). Interpreting loops often depends on a more complex interaction of marks (Supplementary Fig. 4).

  4. The TargetFinder pipeline.
    Figure 4: The TargetFinder pipeline.

    Features are generated from hundreds of diverse data sets for pairs of enhancers and promoters of expressed genes found to have significant Hi-C interactions (positives), as well as random pairs of enhancers and promoters without significant interactions (negatives). These labeled samples are used to train an ensemble classifier that predicts whether enhancer–promoter pairs from new or held-out samples interact, as well as estimates the importance of each feature for accurate prediction. Classifier predictions are probabilities, and a decision threshold (commonly 0.5 but with the possibility of adjustment) converts these to positive or negative prediction labels. This figure excludes selection of minimal predictor sets and evaluation of the accuracy of output predictions using held-out Hi-C interaction data.

  5. TargetFinder performance by cell line, model type, and number of features.
    Figure 5: TargetFinder performance by cell line, model type, and number of features.

    (a) Performance of boosted trees using features for enhancers and promoters only (E/P), extended enhancers and promoters (EE/P), and enhancers and promoters plus the windows between them (E/P/W). (b) Cross-validated performance of TargetFinder predictions for a baseline (random guessing null) model, a linear support vector machine (SVM), a single decision tree, and a boosted ensemble of decision trees. Performance is given as the balance of precision and recall (F1), averaging 83% across cell lines and corresponding to a mean FDR of 12%. Ensemble methods use complex interactions between features to greatly increase the accuracy of predicted interactions. Performance is also high for a combined cell line set comprising the K562, GM12878, HeLa-S3, and IMR90 data sets, with features restricted to data sets shared by all cell lines. (c) Recursive feature elimination (Online Methods) evaluates predictor subsets of size 1 up to the maximum for each cell line, increasing by powers of 2 for computational efficiency. Near-optimal performance was achieved using ~16 predictors for lineage-specific models as well as the combined model, whereas lower but acceptable performance required 8 predictors. The maximum size for the feature subset shown is 32 to enhance the visibility of smaller feature subsets. NHEK lacks a measurement at a subset size of 32 because its data set included fewer than 32 total features. There were ten runs per cell line; error bars, s.e.m.

  6. Predictive importance of genomic features across cell lines and regions.
    Figure 6: Predictive importance of genomic features across cell lines and regions.

    Importance (Online Methods) is discretized by quartiles; grid entries are filled in black when a data set was unavailable in a cell line. The highest average importance is assigned to features in the window region, followed by those in promoters. Promoter methylation and Pol II occupancy are more important in the combined '4 lines' classifier (K562, GM12878, HeLa-S3, and IMR90) than in individual cell lines. Data on highly predictive features such as CAGE were available in most but not all cell lines needed for inclusion in the combined model. Data for certain transcription factors were available in multiple cell lines but are not universally predictive, such as FOS in the window region. Data for other transcription factors were only available in a single cell line but are highly predictive, such as WHSC1 and ZMIZ1 in the window region of K562 cells and RUNX3 in the window region of GM12878 cells.

  7. Influence of features by region.
    Figure 7: Influence of features by region.

    (a,b) Feature values (a) and predictive importance (b) for features in promoter, enhancer, and window regions. Despite having the lowest feature values, the window dominates had higher predictive importance than the enhancer and promoter regions. There were ten runs per cell line. The middle line in each plot represents the median; error bars represent 1.5 times the interquartile range.

  8. Identification of complex interactions between DNA-binding proteins and epigenetic marks.
    Figure 8: Identification of complex interactions between DNA-binding proteins and epigenetic marks.

    (ac) Results for three cell lines are shown: K562 (a), GM12878 (b), and HeLa-S3 (c). Scatterplots show univariate feature significance (two-sample Kolmogorov–Smirnov test) versus multivariate feature importance (estimated via a boosted trees classifier) for the three cell lines. To highlight data sets that are predictive in combination with other features (multivariate) but are not predictive individually (univariate), only features with a multivariate rank less than 25 and a univariate rank greater than 25 are shown. For example, the lower right corner of the K562 plot in a shows that H2AZ, WHSC1, CUX1, and SUMO2 are among the top ten predictive features when the colocalization of other proteins is known. H2AZ has similar context-dependent importance in GM12878 (b) and HeLa-S3 (c) cells. Many features predictive in one or more cell lines were not assayed uniformly and thus could not be included in the combined model (for example, HCFC1, CUX1, and SUMO2).

Accession codes

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Author information


  1. Gladstone Institutes, San Francisco, California, USA.

    • Sean Whalen &
    • Katherine S Pollard
  2. Division of Biostatistics, Institute for Human Genetics, University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, California, USA.

    • Sean Whalen &
    • Katherine S Pollard
  3. Institute for Computational Health Sciences, University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, California, USA.

    • Sean Whalen &
    • Katherine S Pollard
  4. Invitae Corporation, San Francisco, California, USA.

    • Rebecca M Truty


S.W., R.M.T., and K.S.P. designed the experiments and wrote the manuscript. S.W. and R.M.T. implemented the experiments.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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