Wenbo Li, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor
Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) Scholar


Description of Research

New frontiers of gene regulation: charting the function and regulation of noncoding RNA/DNA in the human genome

A decade after the completion of the Human Genome Project, a new challenge now is to decipher the function and regulation, as well as the complex interplay, of millions of regulatory elements in the human genome. These elements together govern almost all basic cellular functions ranging from DNA replication and genome integrity to gene transcriptional control. Importantly, the mutations of noncoding regulatory elements, such as enhancers and promoters, are associated with various diseases, and constitute the majority of genomic variations/mutations in humans as compared to much-studied mutations of protein coding genes. However, our knowledge of the molecular mechanisms underlying genomic regulatory elements remains incomplete, which prevents the solving of this new challenge.

Dr. Li’s laboratory attempts to contribute to solve this challenge by focusing on three major directions (see below). Highly inter-disciplinary approaches will be utilized which include those of biochemistry and molecular biology, epigenetics/epigenomics and bioinformatics.

 

  1. Elucidating the molecular functions of enhancer-derived noncoding RNAs (eRNAs)

Networks of regulatory enhancers dictate distinct cell identities and cellular responses

to diverse signals by instructing precise spatiotemporal patterns of gene expression. However,

35 years after their discovery, enhancer functions and mechanisms remain incompletely

understood. Intriguingly, recent evidence suggests that many, if not all, functional enhancers are

themselves transcription units, generating eRNAs. This observation provides a fundamental insight into the inter-regulation between enhancers and promoters, which can both act as transcription units; it also raises crucial questions regarding the regulation of the enhancer transcription process and potential biological roles of non-coding eRNAs (Fig.1).

Figure 1. The transcription process of enhancers and some recently uncovered regulators (adapted from Li et al., Nature Review Genetics, 2016).

We will use biochemical methods such as antisense oligo based RNA pull down coupled with mass spectrometry, and omics approaches such as GRO-seq (global run-on sequencing) and CLIP-seq (cross-linking immunoprecipitation and sequencing), as well as cutting-edge RNA-DNA interaction and sequencing assays to study the targets of selective eRNAs, their protein partners, potential chemical RNA modifications and functional roles in gene regulation, or in the organization of specific genome architectures and in human disease such as cancer.

 

  1. Characterizing the three-dimensional genome architecture in gene regulation and cancer

An amazing feature of eukaryotic nuclei is that as long as 2 meters of DNA in linear length (3 billion base pairs in humans) needs to be packaged into a space of les than 10 μm a diameter, while the information stored in all regions of this stretch of DNA can still be very quickly (in minutes or seconds) and effectively retrieved during the daily activity of a cell or an organism. (This process is so effective and precise that it almost for sure outperforms The Google search engine!). To characterize the three-dimensional (3D) genome architecture will offer new insights into the process as to how regulatory elements talk to each other in this highly folded space. Importantly, it is increasingly realized that many human diseases are associated with the disruption of proper chromatin architecture or nuclear locations of genomic regulatory elements, rasing the possibility that by understanding and modulating the genome architecture, there could be innovative ways to interfere with human disease. For this specific direction, I have previously worked extensively on important chromatin architecture regulators such as cohesin and condensin complexes in hormonal gene regulation. Intriguingly, these complexes were recently found highly mutated in many human cancers, without clear mechanisms being yet deciphered. We will use system-wide genome architecture assays named 4C-seq and HiChIP/PLAC-seq, extensive bioinformatic analyses and mathematic modeling to understand how these molecules intervene the 3D genome, and how their mutations lead to cancer.

 

  1. Understanding the noncoding genome variations/mutations in human cancer

The study of the previous two directions aim to elucidate the basic mechanisms underlying the RNA or DNA elements encoded in the human genome. However, a major importance of mechanistic studies is that they will ultimately lead to innovative ways to intervene human disease. With the advent of cheaper and more efficient genome sequencing technologies, genome modifying tools (e.g. Crispr/Cas9 or C2c2) and more comprehensive knowledge of human genome mutations and variations (e.g. GWAS and TCGA databases), we hope to link the mechanisms of eRNA and 3D genome with poorly understood human mutations in the noncoding regions. For examples, the mutations of enhancers may be linked to gain or loss of enhancer activity, or altercation of enhancer-promoter looping events. We also wish to mine datasets of genomes of different species during evolution to gain insights into the functional drifting of regulatory elements such as enhancers. We envision that these directions will lead to unexpected findings and novel perspectives to therapeutically target human disease such as cancer.

 

Research Interests: Genomics, epigenomics, bioinformatics, long noncoding RNAs, enhancer RNAs (eRNAs), enhancers, three-dimensional genome architecture, cohesin and condensin, genomic variations/mutations, RNA binding proteins.

Contact Information

Wenbo.Li@uth.tmc.edu

UTHealth McGovern Medical School

Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

6431 Fannin Street, MSB 6.178 Houston, Texas 77030

713-500-6103 Direct   713-500-0652  Fax

 

 

Publications

Ligand-dependent enhancer activation regulated by topoisomerase-I activity

Puc J, Kozbial P, Li W, Tan Y, Liu Z, Suter T, Ohgi KA, Zhang J, Aggarwal AK, Rosenfeld MG.

Cell. 2015 Jan 29;160(3):367-80. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2014.12.023. Epub 2015 Jan 22. Erratum in: Cell. 2015 Oct 8;163(2):520-2

PMCID:PMC4422651

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Enhancers as non-coding RNA transcription units: recent insights and future perspectives

Li W, Notani D, Rosenfeld MG.

Nat Rev Genet. 2016 Apr;17(4):207-23. doi: 10.1038/nrg.2016.4. Epub 2016 Mar 7. Review

PMID:26948815

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Condensin I and II Complexes License Full Estrogen Receptor α-Dependent Enhancer Activation

Li W, Hu Y, Oh S, Ma Q, Merkurjev D, Song X, Zhou X, Liu Z, Tanasa B, He X, Chen AY, Ohgi K, Zhang J, Liu W, Rosenfeld MG

Mol Cell. 2015 Jul 16;59(2):188-202. doi: 10.1016/j.molcel.2015.06.002. Epub 2015 Jul 9.

PMID:26166704

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Enhancer RNAs and regulated transcriptional programs

Lam MT, Li W, Rosenfeld MG, Glass CK

Trends Biochem Sci. 2014 Apr;39(4):170-82. doi: 10.1016/j.tibs.2014.02.007. Epub 2014 Mar 24. Review

PMCID:PMC4266492

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Enhancer RNAs

Li W, Lam MT, Notani D.

Cell Cycle. 2014;13(20):3151-2. doi: 10.4161/15384101.2014.962860. No abstract available.

PMCID:PMC4613994

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Required enhancer-matrin-3 network interactions for a homeodomain transcription program

Skowronska-Krawczyk D, Ma Q, Schwartz M, Scully K, Li W, Liu Z, Taylor H, Tollkuhn J, Ohgi KA, Notani D, Kohwi Y, Kohwi-Shigematsu T, Rosenfeld MG

Nature. 2014 Oct 9;514(7521):257-61. doi: 10.1038/nature13573. Epub 2014 Aug 3

PMCID:PMC4358797

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Enhancer activation requires trans-recruitment of a mega transcription factor complex

Liu Z, Merkurjev D, Yang F, Li W, Oh S, Friedman MJ, Song X, Zhang F, Ma Q, Ohgi KA, Krones A, Rosenfeld MG

Cell. 2014 Oct 9;159(2):358-73. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2014.08.027.

PMCID:PMC4465761

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Brd4 and JMJD6-associated anti-pause enhancers in regulation of transcriptional pause release

Liu W, Ma Q, Wong K, Li W, Ohgi K, Zhang J, Aggarwal AK, Rosenfeld MG

Cell. 2013 Dec 19;155(7):1581-95. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2013.10.056

PMCID:PMC3886918

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The histone H4 lysine 16 acetyltransferase hMOF regulates the outcome of autophagy

Füllgrabe J, Lynch-Day MA, Heldring N, Li W, Struijk RB, Ma Q, Hermanson O, Rosenfeld MG, Klionsky DJ, Joseph B.

Nature. 2013 Aug 22;500(7463):468-71. doi: 10.1038/nature12313. Epub 2013 Jul 17.

PMCID:PMC4006103

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lncRNA-dependent mechanisms of androgen-receptor-regulated gene activation programs

Yang L, Lin C, Jin C, Yang JC, Tanasa B, Li W, Merkurjev D, Ohgi KA, Meng D, Zhang J, Evans CP, Rosenfeld MG.

Nature. 2013 Aug 29;500(7464):598-602. doi: 10.1038/nature12451. Epub 2013 Aug 14.

PMCID:PMC4034386

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Functional roles of enhancer RNAs for oestrogen-dependent transcriptional activation

Li W, Notani D, Ma Q, Tanasa B, Nunez E, Chen AY, Merkurjev D, Zhang J, Ohgi K, Song X, Oh S, Kim HS, Glass CK, Rosenfeld MG

Nature. 2013 Jun 27;498(7455):516-20. doi: 10.1038/nature12210. Epub 2013 Jun 2.

PMCID:PMC3718886

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Reprogramming transcription by distinct classes of enhancers functionally defined by eRNA

Wang D, Garcia-Bassets I, Benner C, Li W, Su X, Zhou Y, Qiu J, Liu W, Kaikkonen MU, Ohgi KA, Glass CK, Rosenfeld MG, Fu XD

Nature. 2011 May 15;474(7351):390-4. doi: 10.1038/nature10006

PMCID:PMC3117022

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