Life Sciences Research for Lifelong Health

Stefan Schoenfelder

Dr Schoenfelder holds a Babraham Institute Career Progression Fellowship which provides two years of support for his research.

Research Summary

Functional organisation of the genome in 3D
98% of the DNA in our body is non-coding, i.e. does not carry the information needed to build proteins. Non-coding has sometimes been equated with ‘non-functional’, or called ‘junk’ in the past; today we know that this is far from the truth. Scattered throughout non-coding DNA is a plethora of so-called regulatory elements, including enhancers, silencers and insulators. These regulatory elements function like molecular switches to control which genes are active (and thus produce proteins) in which cells. This process of gene expression control is vital to allow cells – which all contain the same genes – to specialise to carry out different tasks, and to help them respond to changes.

Enhancers are a type of regulatory element that control gene expression over long distances. They contact their target genes via chromosomal interactions, often bridging large distances in the genome, with the intervening DNA ‘looping out’. To understand how enhancers work, we study them in the context of the three-dimensional organisation of the genome.
Our aim is to find regulatory elements and to understand which genes they control. We also aim to uncover the molecular mechanisms by which regulatory elements find their target genes in the three-dimensional space of the cell nucleus, and to understand how altering the function of regulatory elements can lead to developmental malformations and disease.
We study these questions in pluripotent stem cells – cells that have the potential to create all cell types in the adult body. We use a combination of molecular, genetic, biochemical and imaging approaches to study pluripotent stem cells in their ‘ground state’, and when they start to form new cell types – a process called cell lineage specification.
Techniques and Methods

Through high-resolution mapping and experimental perturbation of the spatial genome architecture, we aim to reveal gene regulatory principles that underpin cell states and cell fate transitions. This may ultimately pave the way for us to experimentally engineer 3D genome folding to achieve predictable outcomes on gene expression and cell fate choice, with potential implications for gene therapy and regenerative medicine.

Latest Publications

Long-Range Enhancer Interactions Are Prevalent in Mouse Embryonic Stem Cells and Are Reorganized upon Pluripotent State Transition.
Novo CL, Javierre BM, Cairns J, Segonds-Pichon A, Wingett SW, Freire-Pritchett P, Furlan-Magaril M, Schoenfelder S, Fraser P, Rugg-Gunn PJ

Transcriptional enhancers, including super-enhancers (SEs), form physical interactions with promoters to regulate cell-type-specific gene expression. SEs are characterized by high transcription factor occupancy and large domains of active chromatin, and they are commonly assigned to target promoters using computational predictions. How promoter-SE interactions change upon cell state transitions, and whether transcription factors maintain SE interactions, have not been reported. Here, we used promoter-capture Hi-C to identify promoters that interact with SEs in mouse embryonic stem cells (ESCs). We found that SEs form complex, spatial networks in which individual SEs contact multiple promoters, and a rewiring of promoter-SE interactions occurs between pluripotent states. We also show that long-range promoter-SE interactions are more prevalent in ESCs than in epiblast stem cells (EpiSCs) or Nanog-deficient ESCs. We conclude that SEs form cell-type-specific interaction networks that are partly dependent on core transcription factors, thereby providing insights into the gene regulatory organization of pluripotent cells.

+ View Abstract

Cell reports, 22, 2211-1247, 2615-2627, 2018

PMID: 29514091

Thrombopoietin signaling to chromatin elicits rapid and pervasive epigenome remodeling within poised chromatin architectures.
Comoglio F, Park HJ, Schoenfelder S, Barozzi I, Bode D, Fraser P, Green AR

Thrombopoietin (TPO) is a critical cytokine regulating hematopoietic stem cell maintenance and differentiation into the megakaryocytic lineage. However, the transcriptional and chromatin dynamics elicited by TPO signaling are poorly understood. Here, we study the immediate early transcriptional and cis-regulatory responses to TPO in hematopoietic stem/progenitor cells (HSPCs) and use this paradigm of cytokine signaling to chromatin to dissect the relation between cis- regulatory activity and chromatin architecture. We show that TPO profoundly alters the transcriptome of HSPCs, with key hematopoietic regulators being transcriptionally repressed within 30 minutes of TPO. By examining cis-regulatory dynamics and chromatin architectures, we demonstrate that these changes are accompanied by rapid and extensive epigenome remodeling of cis-regulatory landscapes that is spatially coordinated within topologically associating domains (TADs). Moreover, TPO-responsive enhancers are spatially clustered and engage in preferential homotypic intra- and inter-TAD interactions that are largely refractory to TPO signaling. By further examining the link between cis-regulatory dynamics and chromatin looping, we show that rapid modulation of cis-regulatory activity is largely independent of chromatin looping dynamics. Finally, we show that, although activated and repressed cis-regulatory elements share remarkably similar DNA sequence compositions, transcription factor binding patterns accurately predict rapid cis-regulatory responses to TPO.

+ View Abstract

Genome research, , 1549-5469, , 2018

PMID: 29429976

Topologically associating domains and chromatin loops depend on cohesin and are regulated by CTCF, WAPL, and PDS5 proteins.
Wutz G, Várnai C, Nagasaka K, Cisneros DA, Stocsits RR, Tang W, Schoenfelder S, Jessberger G, Muhar M, Hossain MJ, Walther N, Koch B, Kueblbeck M, Ellenberg J, Zuber J, Fraser P, Peters JM

Mammalian genomes are spatially organized into compartments, topologically associating domains (TADs), and loops to facilitate gene regulation and other chromosomal functions. How compartments, TADs, and loops are generated is unknown. It has been proposed that cohesin forms TADs and loops by extruding chromatin loops until it encounters CTCF, but direct evidence for this hypothesis is missing. Here, we show that cohesin suppresses compartments but is required for TADs and loops, that CTCF defines their boundaries, and that the cohesin unloading factor WAPL and its PDS5 binding partners control the length of loops. In the absence of WAPL and PDS5 proteins, cohesin forms extended loops, presumably by passing CTCF sites, accumulates in axial chromosomal positions (vermicelli), and condenses chromosomes. Unexpectedly, PDS5 proteins are also required for boundary function. These results show that cohesin has an essential genome-wide function in mediating long-range chromatin interactions and support the hypothesis that cohesin creates these by loop extrusion, until it is delayed by CTCF in a manner dependent on PDS5 proteins, or until it is released from DNA by WAPL.

+ View Abstract

The EMBO journal, , 1460-2075, , 2017

PMID: 29217591


Group Members

Latest Publications

GOTHiC, a probabilistic model to resolve complex biases and to identify real interactions in Hi-C data.

Mifsud B, Martincorena I, Darbo E

PloS one
12 1932-6203:e0174744 (2017)

PMID: 28379994

Global reorganisation of cis-regulatory units upon lineage commitment of human embryonic stem cells.

Freire-Pritchett P, Schoenfelder S, Várnai C

6 2050-084X: (2017)

PMID: 28332981

Identifying Causal Genes at the Multiple Sclerosis Associated Region 6q23 Using Capture Hi-C.

Martin P, McGovern A, Massey J

PloS one
11 1932-6203:e0166923 (2016)

PMID: 27861577

Capture Hi-C identifies a novel causal gene, IL20RA, in the pan-autoimmune genetic susceptibility region 6q23.

McGovern A, Schoenfelder S, Martin P

Genome biology
17 1474-760X:212 (2016)

PMID: 27799070

CHiCAGO: robust detection of DNA looping interactions in Capture Hi-C data.

Cairns J, Freire-Pritchett P, Wingett SW

Genome biology
17 1474-760X:127 (2016)

PMID: 27306882

HiCUP: pipeline for mapping and processing Hi-C data.

Wingett S, Ewels P, Furlan-Magaril M

4 2046-1402:1310 (2015)

PMID: 26835000

Capture Hi-C reveals novel candidate genes and complex long-range interactions with related autoimmune risk loci.

Martin P, McGovern A, Orozco G

Nature communications
6 2041-1723:10069 (2015)

PMID: 26616563