Islet-1 (Isl1) is a member of the Isl1 family of LIM-homeodomain transcription factors (LIM-HD) that is expressed in a defined subset of motor and sensory neurons during vertebrate embryogenesis. To investigate how this specific expression of isl1 is regulated, we searched for enhancers of the isl1 gene that are conserved in vertebrate evolution. Initially, two enhancer elements, CREST1 and CREST2, were identified downstream of the isl1 locus in the genomes of fugu, chick, mouse, and human by BLAST searching for highly similar elements to those originally identified as motor and sensory neuron-specific enhancers in the zebrafish genome. The combined action of these elements is sufficient for completely recapitulating the subtype-specific expression of the isl1 gene in motor neurons of the mouse spinal cord. Furthermore, by direct comparison of the upstream flanking regions of the zebrafish and human isl1 genes, we identified another highly conserved noncoding element, CREST3, and subsequently C3R, a similar element to CREST3 with two CDP CR1 recognition motifs, in the upstream regions of all other isl1 family members. In mouse and human, CRESTs are located as far as more than 300 kb away from the isl1 locus, while they are much closer to the isl1 locus in zebrafish. Although all of zebrafish CREST2, CREST3, and C3R activate gene expression in the sensory neurons of zebrafish, CREST2 of mouse and human does not have the sequence necessary for sensory neuron-specific expression. Our results revealed both a remarkable conservation of the regulatory elements regulating subtype-specific gene expression in motor and sensory neurons and the dynamic process of reorganization of these elements whereby each element increases the level of cell-type specificity by losing redundant functions with the other elements during vertebrate evolution.
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