Functional Characterization of Transcription Factor Motifs Using Cross-species Comparison across Large Evolutionary Distances


We address the problem of finding statistically significant associations between cis-regulatory motifs and functional gene sets, in order to understand the biological roles of transcription factors. We develop a computational framework for this task, whose features include a new statistical score for motif scanning, the use of different scores for predicting targets of different motifs, and new ways to deal with redundancies among significant motif–function associations. This framework is applied to the recently sequenced genome of the jewel wasp, Nasonia vitripennis, making use of the existing knowledge of motifs and gene annotations in another insect genome, that of the fruitfly. The framework uses cross-species comparison to improve the specificity of its predictions, and does so without relying upon non-coding sequence alignment. It is therefore well suited for comparative genomics across large evolutionary divergences, where existing alignment-based methods are not applicable. We also apply the framework to find motifs associated with socially regulated gene sets in the honeybee, Apis mellifera, using comparisons with Nasonia, a solitary species, to identify honeybee-specific associations.

Author Summary
We develop a computational pipeline for predicting the functions of transcription factor motifs, through DNA sequence analysis. The pipeline is applied to the newly sequenced genome of the jewel wasp, Nasonia vitripennis. It exploits the wealth of molecular data available in another insect species, the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster, and uses cross-species comparison to its advantage. Our main contribution is to show how this can be done despite the large evolutionary divergence between the two species. The methodology presented here may be applied more generally to other scenarios (genomes) where comparative regulatory genomics must deal with large evolutionary divergences.