Cfp1 integrates both CpG content and gene
activity for accurate H3K4me3 deposition
in embryonic stem cells
Thomas Clouaire,1Shaun Webb,1Pete Skene,1Robert Illingworth,1Alastair Kerr,1Robert Andrews,2
Jeong-Heon Lee,3David Skalnik,4and Adrian Bird1,5
1Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH9 3JR, United Kingdom;2Wellcome Trust
Sanger Institute, Hinxton, Cambridge CB10 1SA, United Kingdom;3Herman B. Wells Center for Pediatric Research, Indiana
University School of Medicine, Indianapolis, Indiana 46202, USA;4Biology Department, Indiana University-Purdue University
Indianapolis, Indianapolis, Indiana 46202, USA
Trimethylation of histone H3 Lys 4 (H3K4me3) is a mark of active and poised promoters. The Set1 complex is
responsible for most somatic H3K4me3 and contains the conserved subunit CxxC finger protein 1 (Cfp1), which
binds to unmethylated CpGs and links H3K4me3 with CpG islands (CGIs). Here we report that Cfp1 plays
unanticipated roles in organizing genome-wide H3K4me3 in embryonic stem cells. Cfp1 deficiency caused two
contrasting phenotypes: drastic loss of H3K4me3 at expressed CGI-associated genes, with minimal consequences
for transcription, and creation of ‘‘ectopic’’ H3K4me3 peaks at numerous regulatory regions. DNA binding by Cfp1
was dispensable for targeting H3K4me3 to active genes but was required to prevent ectopic H3K4me3 peaks. The
presence of ectopic peaks at enhancers often coincided with increased expression of nearby genes. This suggests
that CpG targeting prevents ‘‘leakage’’ of H3K4me3 to inappropriate chromatin compartments. Our results
demonstrate that Cfp1 is a specificity factor that integrates multiple signals, including promoter CpG content and
gene activity, to regulate genome-wide patterns of H3K4me3.
[Keywords: epigenetics; chromatin; H3K4me3; Cfp1; CpG islands]
Supplemental material is available for this article.
Received April 13, 2012; revised version accepted June 21, 2012.
Genomic DNA of eukaryotes is organized into chroma-
tin, a structure involved in all aspects of DNA metabo-
lism, including transcription, replication, or repair. These
roles are mediated in part by diverse post-translational
modifications of histone residues (Kouzarides 2007). Re-
cent systematic profiling of histone modifications and
chromatin-associated factors revealed that chromatin can
be subdivided into discrete states with distinct functional
properties (Filion et al. 2010; Kharchenko et al. 2010;
Ernst et al. 2011). The new classifications recapitulate
known distinctions between, for example, euchromatin
and heterochromatin, but recognize moresubtle states re-
lating to active and poised promoters or strong and weak
enhancers (Ernst et al. 2011). Therefore, histone modifi-
cation patterns can have predictive value regarding the
status of the underlying DNA sequence, even though the
role for each individual modification is not yet estab-
lished. To fully appreciate the significance of structural
adaptations of chromatin, it is important to understand
their origin. Are they a secondary response to transcrip-
tional activity per se? Or do cis-acting factors set up
appropriate chromatin conformations independently re-
gardless of transcriptional status?
These questions can be posed specifically for trimethyl-
ation of histone H3 Lys 4 (H3K4me3), a modification
found at gene promoters. In yeast, it is a feature of active
gene expression (Santos-Rosa et al. 2002; Ng et al. 2003),
but in mammals, H3K4me3 is found at active and inac-
tive promoters at a level dependent on gene activity (Barski
et al. 2007; Guenther et al. 2007). There is an intriguingly
close correlation between sites of H3K4me3 and another
feature of genomic DNA: CpG islands (CGIs). CGIs are 1
kb on average, show an elevated G+C base composition
and high CpG content, and are usually free of DNA
methylation (Illingworth and Bird 2009; Deaton and Bird
2010). The majority of annotated gene promoters in mice
and humans are associated with a CGI and tend to be
et al. 2007; Mikkelsen et al. 2007). A significant fraction
of all CGIs in both humans and mice are not associated
with annotated transcription start sites (TSSs) but never-
theless exhibit characteristics of promoters, including
Article is online at http://www.genesdev.org/cgi/doi/10.1101/gad.194209.112.
Freely available online through the Genes & Development Open Access
1714 GENES & DEVELOPMENT 26:1714–1728 ? 2012 by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press ISSN 0890-9369/12; www.genesdev.org
H3K4me3 (Illingworth et al. 2010). The idea that DNA se-
quence itself contributes to recruitment of histone meth-
yltransferases has been strongly supported by the finding
that insertion of G+C-rich DNA lacking a promoter into
the genome is sufficient to create a novel domain of
H3K4me3 (Mendenhall et al. 2010; Thomson et al.
2010). These findings suggest that a key function of CGIs
is to recruit H3K4me3, which in turn favors transcrip-
Set1 is the sole H3K4 histone methyltransferase in bud-
ding yeast (Briggs et al. 2001; Krogan et al. 2002; Nagy
et al. 2002), and in Drosophila melanogaster, dSet1 is
responsible for the bulk of H3K4me2 and H3K4me3
(Ardehali et al. 2011; Mohan et al. 2011). In mammals,
there are at least six Set1-related proteins, including two
homologs of Set1—Set1A and Set1B—and the mixed-
lineage leukemia (Mll) family (Mll1–4), which comprises
orthologs of the Drosophila trithorax gene (Eissenberg
and Shilatifard 2010). All of these proteins form com-
plexes that are related to the yeast Set1 complex (or
COMPASS) and include the common subunits Wdr5,
2001). Of particular relevance regarding CGIs is CxxC
finger protein 1 (Cfp1, CXXC1, or CGBP), which is a
component of both Set1A and Set1B complexes (Lee and
Skalnik 2005;JHLee et al. 2007).Cfp1binds unmethylated
CpGs in vitro via its CxxC zinc finger domain (Lee et al.
2001). Mll1 and Mll2 also have CxxC domains that bind
unmethylated CpGs in vitro (Birke et al. 2002; Bach et al.
2009). We previously reported that Cfp1 colocalizes with
CGIs in mouse brains, and its depletion in fibroblasts leads
The results suggest that Cfp1 targets the Set1 complex to
CGIs regardless of their transcriptional activity. Similarly,
the CxxC protein KDM2A, which demethylates H3K36,
depletes H3K36me2 at CGIs (Blackledge et al. 2010).
In the present study, we examined how genome-wide
trimethylation of H3K4 in mouse embryonic stem (ES)
cells is dependent on Cfp1. Targeted disruption of the Cfp1
gene results in peri-implantation embryonic lethality in
mice (Carlone and Skalnik 2001). Also, RNAi-mediated
knockdown of Cfp1 in somatic cells is severely detrimen-
tal (Young and Skalnik 2007; Thomson et al. 2010). Mouse
ES cells lacking Cfp1, however, are viable and can self-
renew, although they are unable to differentiate (Carlone
et al. 2005). We set out to understand the role of Cfp1 in
dictating H3K4me3 patterns using Cfp1?/?ES cells. Our
findings demonstrate that Cfp1 plays a key role in orga-
nizing genome-wide H3K4me3 in mouse ES cells. We
found that Cfp1 is essential for proper H3K4me3 accu-
mulation at a large number of promoters, with a strong
bias toward CGIs and active genes. We also found that
decreased H3K4me3 at active promoters did not consis-
tently affect transcription of the associated gene, raising
questions about the relationship between this histone
modification and gene expression. Unexpectedly, reduced
H3K4me3 was rescued by a DNA-binding-deficient ver-
sion of Cfp1, indicating that recruitment of H3K4me3 to
CGIs can occur independent of CpG binding by Cfp1. In
contrast, the CpG-binding mutant of Cfp1 was unable to
rescue a second prominent phenotype of Cfp1?/?ES cells;
namely, the aberrant accumulation of H3K4me3 at ec-
topic sites. Many of these ectopic H3K4me3 sites corre-
sponded to enhancers and sites bound by CTCF and
cohesin. Furthermore, aberrant H3K4me3 accumulation
is linked to increased expression of the proximal gene.
Our results reveal roles for Cfp1 as a specificity factor that
regulates genome-wide H3K4me3 by integrating both
CpG content at promoters and gene activity. They also
establish that the ability of Cfp1 to bind unmethylated
CpGs is essential to restrict the activity of the Set1 com-
plex to promoters and avoid ‘‘leakage’’ of this modifica-
tion to inappropriate chromatin compartments with
consequent effects on local gene expression.
Cfp1 is required for H3K4me3 at many gene promoters
Previous work suggested that Cfp1 dictates H3K4me3 pat-
terns by targeting the Set1 complex to CGI promoters
(Thomson et al. 2010). To investigate this hypothesis
further, we analyzed H3K4me3 distribution in Cfp1?/?
ES cells, which show normal global levels of H3K4me3
(Supplemental Fig. S1A; Lee and Skalnik 2005). We carried
pled to massively parallel DNA sequencing (ChIP-seq)
in wild-type and Cfp1?/?ES cells. We identified 18,244
Ensembl gene promoters in wild-type ES cells showing a
detectable H3K4me3 peak within 2 kb of their TSSs—a
et al. 2007). Consistent with previous observations, the vast
majority of H3K4me3-positive promoters (15,441, or 85%)
were associated with a CGI (Supplemental Fig. S1B; Barski
et al. 2007; Guenther et al. 2007; Mikkelsen et al. 2007).
Cfp1?/?ES cells showed loss of H3K4me3 at many loci,
ranging from severe loss (exemplified by Sox2, Actb, and
Gapdh loci) (Fig. 1A) to no discernable effect (Supplemen-
tal Fig. S1C). The magnitude of these changes was con-
firmed at candidate loci (Actb and Sox2) in three indepen-
dent Cfp1?/?ES cell clones using ChIP followed by
quantitativePCR (qPCR) (Supplemental Fig. S1D,E).Over-
all, we identified 8527 Ensembl gene promoters showing
a detectable reduction in H3K4me3 in Cfp1?/?ES cells (Fig.
1B) as well as 1799 promoters with increased H3K4me3,
leaving 8663 that are weakly or not affected (Supplemental
Fig. S1F; Supplemental Table S1). Overall, about half of all
H3K4me3-positive promoters are affected by loss of Cfp1
in ES cells, 95% of which are associated with a CGI (Fig.
1B). Composite profiles revealed that the loss of H3K4me3
is mainly located downstream from the TSS (Fig. 1C). A
similar composite profile for the 20% most affected pro-
moters showed a more drastic depletion of H3K4me3
both upstream of and downstream from the TSS (Fig.
1D,E). To confirm that the absence of Cfp1 was primarily
responsible for the observed decrease, we performed
H3K4me3 ChIP-seq in a rescue cell line obtained by stable
transfection of a human Cfp1 cDNA into Cfp1?/?ES cells
(Carlone et al. 2005; Tate et al. 2009a). These wild-type
rescue cells, which express Cfp1 at near endogenous levels
Cfp1 regulates proper H3K4me3 deposition
GENES & DEVELOPMENT1715
(Supplemental Fig. S1G), generally regained appropriate
H3K4me3 patterns at affected promoters (Fig. 1B–E).
H3K4me3 at highly expressed genes is most affected
by Cfp1 deficiency
Since only a fraction of H3K4me3-positive promoters are
significantly affected by the absence of Cfp1, we hypoth-
esized that transcriptional status could distinguish Cfp1-
sensitive from Cfp1-insensitive loci. To measure tran-
scription rates, we performed global run-on (GRO)-seq,
which provides a snapshot of genome-wide RNA poly-
merase activity (Core et al. 2008). GRO-seq read density
across Ensembl genes showed that genes with decreased
H3K4me3 in Cfp1?/?ES cells are the most transcription-
coverage) in wild-type (wt) and Cfp1?/?ES cells at selected gene loci (Sox2, Actb, and Gapdh). CGIs are represented in purple, and
RefSeq genes are in black. (B) Heat map representing ChIP-seq signal for H3K4me3 (blue) in wild-type, Cfp1?/?, and wild-type rescue ES
cells for Ensembl promoters showing decreased H3K4me3 signal in Cfp1?/?ES cells (n = 8527). CxxC affinity purification (CAP)-seq
enrichment of CGIs in wild-type ES cells is also shown (purple). CAP-seq identifies CGIs using biochemical affinity for an immobilized
CxxC domain. Genes are rank-ordered from the highest to the lowest H3K4me3 signal in wild-type ES cells. Signal is displayed from ?3
kb to +3 kb surrounding each annotated TSS. (C) Composite profile showing H3K4me3 signal for wild-type (blue), Cfp1?/?(pink), and wild-
type rescue (orange) ES cells at 8527 Ensembl promoters showing decreased H3K4me3 in Cfp1?/?ES cells. D and E are equivalent to B and
C, respectively, but represent only the 20% most affected promoters with respect to H3K4me3 loss in Cfp1?/?ES cells (n = 1706).
Cfp1 regulates H3K4me3 at many gene promoters. (A) Genome browser screenshots representing H3K4me3 signal (as read
Clouaire et al.
1716GENES & DEVELOPMENT
the genes whose H3K4me3 was most severely affected by
the absence of Cfp1 (top 20%) had an even higher level of
transcription (Fig. 2A). This trend was confirmed using
published expression microarray data (Mikkelsen et al.
2007) and by RNA polymerase II (RNA Pol II) ChIP-seq for
mouse ES cells (Supplemental Fig. S2A,B). Specifically,
the H3K4me3 status of the top 10% most expressed genes
in wild-type cells was highly sensitive to loss of Cfp1 (Fig.
2B). Similarly, promoters of active genes (RNA Pol II+and
H3K79me2+) (Kagey et al. 2010; Rahl et al. 2010) again
showed reduced H3K4me3 in Cfp1?/?ES cells compared
with wild-type and the wild-type rescue cell lines (Sup-
plemental Fig. 2C). In contrast, little change in H3K4me3
profile was detected at promoters of nonproductive (RNA
Pol II+and H3K79me2?) or inactive (RNA Pol II?) genes
(Supplemental Fig. S2C). Consistent with these observa-
which are silent promoters enriched for both H3K4me3
and H3K27me3 (Azuara et al. 2006; Bernstein et al. 2006),
were not significantly altered in Cfp1?/?ES cells (Sup-
plemental Fig. S2D,E). We conclude that H3K4me3 at
promoters of highly expressed genes is most sensitive to
the lack of Cfp1. Finally, we could confirm by ChIP-qPCR
that the absence of Cfp1 leads to decreased Set1A binding
at Actb, Gapdh, and Rpl3 gene loci (Supplemental Fig.
S2F,G). We conclude that Cfp1 is required for proper Set1-
dependent H3K4me3 at active gene promoters.
H3K4me3 depletion at active CGIs does not lead
to increased DNA methylation
Methylation at H3K4 potentially inhibits DNA methyl-
ation by preventing recruitment of de novo DNA meth-
yltransferases (Ooi et al. 2007; Zhang et al. 2010). We
GRO-seq density distribution in wild-type (wt) ES cells for all Ensembl genes (All genes); for genes whose H3K4me3 is not affected
(Nonaffected, n = 8663), increased (Gain, n = 1799), or decreased (Loss, n = 8527); or for the 20% most affected (Top 20% loss, n = 1706)
in Cfp1?/?ES cells. Box plots represent the central 50% of the data (filled box), the median value (central bisecting line), and 1.53 the
interquartile range (whiskers). (B) Composite profile showing H3K4me3 signal for wild-type (blue), Cfp1?/?(pink), and wild-type rescue
(orange) ES cells for the 10% most active of all H3K4me3-positive Ensembl genes in wild-type ES cells, as judged by GRO-seq read
density (n = 1824). (C) Composite profile showing MAP-seq signal for wild-type (blue) and Cfp1?/?(pink) ES cells at 8527 Ensembl
promoters showing decreased H3K4me3 in Cfp1?/?ES cells. MAP-seq identifies clusters of methylated CpGs using biochemical
affinity for an immobilized methyl-CpG-binding domain (MBD). (D) The same as C but representing only the 20% most affected
promoters with respect to H3K4me3 loss in Cfp1?/?ES cells (n = 1706).
Cfp1 deficiency preferentially affects H3K4me3 at highly expressed genes without altering their DNA methylation. (A)
Cfp1 regulates proper H3K4me3 deposition
GENES & DEVELOPMENT 1717
tested whether decreased H3K4me3 at active CGI pro-
moters influenced their DNA methylation status by
methyl-CpG affinity purification (MAP) coupled with
high-throughput DNA sequencing (MAP-seq) (Illingworth
et al. 2010) in wild-type and Cfp1?/?ES cells. No increase
in CGI methylation was detected in Cfp1?/?ES cells at
either gene promoters showing reduced H3K4me3 (Fig.
2C,D) or promoters with increased or unaffected H3K4me3
(Supplemental Fig. S3A). Cfp1?/?ES cells are reported to
display a global decrease in genomic DNA methylation
(Carlone et al. 2005). Accordingly, our MAP-seq data con-
firmed reduced DNA methylation at promoters that are
normally methylated in wild-type ES cells (Supplemental
Fig. S3B,C). The absence of increased methylation at
H3K4me3-deficient promoters may be related to their
persistent transcription (see below) or the compromised
DNA methylation system in Cfp1?/?ES cells.
Loss of H3K4me3 at active genes does not affect
If H3K4me3 is an important contributor to the transcrip-
tion process at highly expressed genes, then gene expres-
sion should be disturbed in Cfp1?/?ES cells. Remarkably,
gene expression microarrays showed only subtle changes,
with few probes changing twofold or more (P < 0.05) be-
tween wild-type with Cfp1?/?ES cells (Fig. 3A). In fact,
stable RNA from genes with decreased H3K4me3 in
Cfp1?/?ES cells (Fig. 3A, highlighted in red) exhibited
mild up-regulation or down-regulation in a manner sim-
ilar to genes whose H3K4me3 was not altered by the
mutation (Fig. 3A, highlighted in blue). Focusing on the
20% of promoters with the most severe H3K4me3 de-
pletion (Fig. 3A, orange) revealed a weak tendency to ac-
cumulate toward the right quadrant, suggesting some-
what reduced expression. A reciprocal weak tendency
toward increasedexpression was observed at the few genes
whose promoters gain H3K4me3 in Cfp1?/?ES cells (Fig.
3A, green). Both of these effects are modest. Equivalent
results were obtained when comparing Cfp1?/?ES cells
with the wild-type rescue line (Supplemental Fig. S4A).
Expression arrays monitor the steady-state levels of
mRNAs. To assay altered transcription in Cfp1?/?cells
more directly, we examined RNA Pol II ChIP-seq and
GRO-seq data. In agreement with the transcriptome data,
there was no obvious link between changes in H3K4me3
and transcription or RNA Pol II occupancy. For example,
Actb and Pou5f1 (encoding Oct4) showed normal RNA
Pol II and GRO-seq profiles despite a strong decrease in
H3K4me3 in Cfp1?/?ES cells (Fig. 3B). When altered ex-
pression was seen, this effect was not simply related to
H3K4me3. For example, both GRO-seq reads and RNA
Pol II density were decreased at the Gapdh or Rpl3 genes,
but Nanog and Ulk1 showed increased transcriptional
activity despite a similar drastic loss of H3K4me3. The
aggregate distribution of GRO-seq read density over the
body of genes with decreased H3K4me3 revealed a very
weak, but significant (P = 1.75 3 10?7), difference due to
the absence of Cfp1 (Fig. 3C). This became more notice-
able at the 20% most H3K4me3-depleted promoters (Fig.
3C), but expression nevertheless remained substantially
higher than at genes whose H3K4me3 was not affected by
Cfp1 deficiency. Equivalent results were obtained by an-
alyzing RNA Pol II density across the same gene set (Fig.
3D). H3K4me3 at active gene promoters has been linked
to pre-mRNA splicing (Sims et al. 2007). We checked for
splicing defects in pre-mRNAs produced from several
candidate genes showing decreased H3K4me3 in Cfp1?/?
ES cells using qRT–PCR to measure the ratio of unspliced
to spliced transcripts in wild-type and Cfp1?/?ES cells
(Supplemental Fig. S4B). We were unable to detect in-
creased accumulation of unspliced pre-mRNAs (Supple-
mental Fig. S4C) even in cases of subtle alterations in
expression (Supplemental Fig. S4D). Thus, the effect of
losing H3K4me3 on ES cell transcription is variable and
generally modest. However, we cannot definitively rule
out that low H3K4me3 levels remaining at most genes in
Cfp1?/?ES cells are sufficient to mediate proper gene
expression and/or splicing.
Cfp1 DNA-binding activity is not required
for H3K4me3 at promoters
Cfp1 can bind unmethylated CpGs in vitro and in vivo via
its CxxC DNA-binding domain (Lee et al. 2001; Thomson
et al. 2010). Since 95% of promoters where H3K4me3
decreased in Cfp1?/?ES cells are CGI promoters, it
seemed likely that Cfp1 DNA-binding activity would
help target the Set1 complex to these loci. To test this
hypothesis, we used an ES cell line expressing Cfp1C169A
(C169A rescue), which has a missense mutation within
the CxxC motif that abolishes DNA binding (Tate et al.
2009a). This cell line expressed Cfp1C169Aat near endog-
enouslevels(Supplemental Fig.S1G), andthemutantpro-
tein was shown by immunoprecipitation to interact with
components of the Set1 complex as wild-type Cfp1 (Sup-
plemental Fig. S5A). Unexpectedly, H3K4me3 ChIP-seq
with this mutant rescue cell line showed restoration of
nearly normal H3K4me3 levels at promoters where it was
lost in Cfp1?/?ES cells (Fig. 4A; Supplemental Fig. S5B).
Both the 20% most affected promoters and promoters of
the 10% most active genes showed high levels of H3K4me3
in the C169A rescue cell line, although H3K4me3 levels
were consistently slightly lower than in wild-type rescue
ES cells (Fig. 4B). We confirmed restoration of H3K4me3
as well as Cfp1 binding at active gene promoters by ChIP-
qPCR in the C169A rescue cell line (Fig. 4C,D). Targeting
of Cfp1 and H3K4me3 to active promoters by a DNA-
binding-deficient form of Cfp1 suggests that transcrip-
tional activity canrecruit Cfp1 and Set1. We concludethat
transcription itself plays a key role in the targeting of Cfp1
and H3K4me3 to active promoters, as it is observed in the
presence of a DNA-binding-deficient Cfp1.
The DNA-binding activity of Cfp1 is required to
prevent accumulation of H3K4me3 at regulatory
regions outside CGIs
In addition to loss of H3K4me3 at many CGI promoters,
Cfp1?/?EScells alsoshow a secondprominent chromatin
phenotype; namely, the accumulation of H3K4me3 at
Clouaire et al.
1718GENES & DEVELOPMENT
between wild-type and Cfp1?/?ES cells. Fold change in expression values (wild-type vs. Cfp1?/?ES cells) and statistical significance of the
differences (two-sided t-test) were computed for each probe on the array (gray dots). Genes differentially expressed twofold or more lie above
the horizontal threshold (P = 0.05) and outside the two vertical thresholds (plus or minus twofold differential expression). Colors denote
genes in Cfp1?/?ES cells with decreased H3K4me3 (red), with the 20% most H3K4me3-depleted (orange), with increased H3K4me3 (green),
and unaffected (blue). (B) Screenshots representing read coverage of H3K4me3 ChIP-seq signal (blue), RNA Pol II ChIP-seq signal (red), or
GRO-seq signal (green) in wild-type, Cfp1?/?and wild-type rescue ES cells at selected gene loci (Sox2, Actb, Gapdh, Pou5f1, Nanog, Rpl3,
and Ulk1). (C) Comparison of GRO-seq read density for wild-type (blue), Cfp1?/?(pink), and wild-type rescue (orange) at all Ensembl genes
(All), genes whose H3K4me3 is decreased (Loss, n = 8527), the 20% most affected (Top 20% loss, n = 1706), genes whose H3K4me3 is
increased (Gain, n = 1799), or genes whose H3K4me3 is unaffected (n = 8663) in Cfp1?/?ES cells. Box plots show the central 50% of the data
(filled box), the median (central bisecting line), and 1.53 the interquartile range (whiskers). P-values were calculated using the nonpaired
Wilcoxon test; (*) P < 0.05; (**) P < 0.01; (***) P < 0.001. (D) As C, but showing the density distribution for RNA Pol II ChIP-seq reads.
Transcription is weakly affected by decreased H3K4me3 at active gene promoters. (A) Volcano plots comparing expression values
coverage in wild-type (wt), Cfp1?/?, wild-type rescue, and C169A rescue ES cells at selected gene loci (Sox2, Actb, Gapdh, Pou5f1,
Nanog, Rpl3, and Ulk1). (B) Composite profile showing H3K4me3 signal for Cfp1?/?(pink), wild-type rescue (orange), and C169A
rescue (turquoise) ES cells at all 8527 Ensembl promoters showing decreased H3K4me3 in Cfp1?/?ES cells (left panel), the top 20%
decreased H3K4me3 promoters (middle panel), or the top 10% most active genes (right panel). (C,D) Quantification (percent input) of
H3K4me3 (C) or Cfp1 (D) using ChIP-qPCR at the promoter and proximal coding region of selected active (Sox2, Actb, Gapdh, Pou5f1,
and Nanog) and inactive (Hoxc8, Hoxa10, and Brachyury) gene loci. The negative control region (Control) corresponds to an intergenic
region on chromosome 15. Colors are as in B. Error bars show the standard deviation of PCR replicates.
A Cfp1 DNA-binding mutant can restore H3K4me3 at active promoters. (A) Screenshots representing H3K4me3 read
Clouaire et al.
1720 GENES & DEVELOPMENT
discrete regions that are remote from annotated CGIs and
TSSs (Fig. 5A). Excluding CGIs and TSSs from the anal-
ysis, we detected 14,209 such ‘‘ectopic’’ H3K4me3 sites
(Supplemental Table S2). Significantly, ectopic H3K4me3
sites were rescued by wild-type Cfp1 but persisted in cells
expressing the C169A DNA-binding mutant (Fig. 5A,B).
Ectopic H3K4me3 accumulation did not coincide with
CpG-rich regions, although a modestly increased CpG and
G+C content was detected (Supplemental Fig. S6A). As a
over 10,000 randomly selected genomic regions (Supple-
mental Fig. S6B). Aggregation of ChIP DNA sequence
reads across all of these sites showed that the DNA-
binding mutant of Cfp1 fails to efficiently relieve aberrant
H3K4me3 at these regions (Fig. 5C), and this was con-
firmed by ChIP-qPCR at selected ectopic peaks (Supple-
mental Fig. S6C). Our results indicate that the DNA-
binding activity of Cfp1 prevents aberrant accumulation
of H3K4me3 away from CGI promoters, probably due to
imprecise targeting of the Set1 complex.
To investigate the possibility that these sites coincide
with functional features of the genome, we aligned ectopic
peaks with published ES cell data sets for H3K4me1,
H3K4me2, H3K27me3, H3K36me3, H3K9me3, and
H4K20me3 in ES cells (Mikkelsen et al. 2007; Ku et al.
2008; Meissner et al. 2008), and a collection of DNase I-
hypersensitive sites (http://www.ensembl.org/index.html).
Cluster analysis revealed that ectopic H3K4me3 sites tend
to overlap with H3K4me1, H3K4me2, and DNase I-hyper-
sensitive sites (Fig. 6A). In contrast, ectopic peaks colocal-
ized poorly with peaks of the ‘‘heterochromatic’’ histone
modifications H3K9me3 and H4K20me3, the transcrip-
tional elongation mark H3K36me3, or the Polycomb-
associated mark H3K27me3. We performed H3K4me1
H3K4me3 signal read coverage in wild-type (wt), Cfp1?/?, wild-type rescue, and C169A rescue ES cells at selected genomic regions on
chromosomes 15 and 17. (B) Heat map representing ChIP-seq signal for H3K4me3 (blue) in wild-type, Cfp1?/?, wild-type rescue, and
C169A rescue ES cells for each of 14,209 ectopic peaks. Peaks are rank-ordered from the highest to the lowest H3K4me3 signal in Cfp1?/?
ES cells. Signal is displayed from ?1.5 kb to +1.5 kb surrounding the center of each peak. (C) Composite profile showing H3K4me3 signal
at ectopic peak sites in wild-type (blue), Cfp1?/?(pink), wild-type rescue (orange), and C169A rescue (turquoise) ES cells.
H3K4me3 accumulates at ectopic sites in the absence of Cfp1 or its DNA-binding activity. (A) Screenshots showing
GENES & DEVELOPMENT 1721
Cfp1 regulates proper H3K4me3 deposition
neighboring genes. (A) Cluster analysis showing colocalization of ectopic peaks with regions enriched with histone modifications using
published data sets. Yellow bars represent overlap of an ectopic peak with a region enriched for that histone modification. (B)
Composite profile showing RNA Pol II ChIP-seq signal for wild-type (wt) (blue), Cfp1?/?(pink), wild-type rescue (orange), and C169A
rescue (turquoise) ES cells at all ectopic peaks. (C) As A using published binding sites for various factors. The H3K4me1 data used were
generated in the present study. (D) Transcription as measured by GRO-seq read density at ectopic peaks (n = 14,209) in wild-type (blue),
Cfp1?/?(pink), wild-type rescue (orange), and C169A rescue (turquoise). Box plots show the central 50% of the data (filled box), the
median (central bisecting line), and 1.53 the interquartile range (whiskers). Read density was calculated over the central 500 bp of each
peak. (E) Expression (measured by RNA Pol II density over the gene body) of the nearest Ensembl gene to each ectopic peak or to the top
25% ectopic peaks with the highest RNA Pol II occupancy. Box plots show the central 50% of the data (filled box), the median (central
bisecting line), and 1.53 the interquartile range (whiskers). P-values were calculated using the nonpaired Wilcoxon test; (*) P < 0.05; (**)
P < 0.01; (***) P < 0.001. (F) Expression (measured by RNA Pol II density over the gene body) of the nearest Ensembl gene to each ectopic
peak or to the top 25% ectopic peaks with the highest transcriptional activity (by GRO-seq). Box plots show the central 50% of the data
(filled box), the median (central bisecting line), and 1.53 the interquartile range (whiskers). P-values were calculated using the
nonpaired Wilcoxon test; (*) P < 0.05; (**) P < 0.01; (***) P < 0.001.
H3K4me3 ectopic peaks in Cfp1?/?ES cells coincide with regulatory regions and correlate with enhanced expression of
Clouaire et al.
1722 GENES & DEVELOPMENT
ChIP-seq at increased sequence depth for each cell line,
and this revealed that most ectopic peaks (>70%) are pos-
itive for H3K4me1 in wild-type ES cells (Supplemental
Fig. S7A,C). We conclude that ectopic H3K4me3 peaks
align with chromatin features typically found at tran-
scriptional enhancers(Birney et al.2007; Heintzman etal.
2007). As recent reports have detected RNA Pol II at
enhancers (De Santa et al. 2010; Kim et al. 2010), we
tested for bound RNA Pol II at ectopic sites using our
ChIP-seq data sets for all four cell lines. RNA Pol II oc-
cupancy was seen in wild-type and wild-type rescue ES
cells (Fig. 6B; Supplemental Fig. S7B,E), and levels of RNA
Pol II were significantly higher in both Cfp1?/?and
C169A rescue ES cells. Therefore, elevated H3K4me3 is
accompanied by increased recruitment of RNA Pol II. The
data argue strongly that many sites of ectopic H3K4me3
accumulation correspond to bona fide gene regulatory
To further annotate ectopic H3K4me3 peaks, we tested
for colocalization with a panel of factors known to be
associated with enhancers or other regulatory sequences
in ES cells (Chen et al. 2008; Creyghton et al. 2010; Kagey
et al. 2010; Schnetz et al. 2010; Ong and Corces 2011;
Rada-Iglesias et al. 2011). We also compared ectopic peaks
with binding sites for cohesin (Smc1a and Smc3), which
contribute to promoter/enhancer interactions (Kagey et al.
2010), and CTCF, whose diverse regulatory functions in-
clude organization of global chromatin architecture and
chromatin loops (Phillips and Corces 2009). Ectopic peaks
grouped into classes that reflect known relationships
between the tested factors (Fig. 6C). One class is charac-
terized by the enrichment of p300, H3K27ac, Mediator,
Smc1a, and H3K4me1, all of which are typical of active
et al. 2010). A second group is characterized by enrichment
for binding sites for the core ES cell pluripotency factors
Oct4, Sox2, and Nanog together with p300, all of which
can occupy active and inactiveenhancers (Creyghton et al.
2010; Rada-Iglesias et al. 2011). A third separate class is
dominated by simultaneous binding of cohesin and CTCF
(Kagey et al. 2010). A fourth class is enriched only by
H3K4me1 based on our data set. Finally, a fifth class con-
tains regions that do not strongly enrich for any of the
tested features that could represent uncharacterized reg-
ulatory regions in ES cells or, alternatively, belong to a
separate group of currently nonannotated elements.
Many ectopic peaks evidently have the characteristics
of regulatory regions, including enhancers, transcription
factor-binding sites, or potential chromatin loops (CTCF/
cohesin-binding sites). More detailed analysis suggested
that CTCF/Smc1a sites as a whole are affected by the ab-
sence of Cfp1, as H3K4me3 levels at a large set of CTCF/
Smc1a promoter distal sites were increased in both
A similar increase in H3K4me3 was observed at CTCF and
is affected by Cfp1 deficiency (Supplemental Fig. S8G,H).
As both CTCF and cohesin are postulated to mediate
chromatin looping (Ong and Corces 2011), we speculate
that Cfp1 prevents H3K4me3 from invading chromatin
loops by a mechanism that requires its ability to bind to
Does aberrant H3K4me3 accumulation at promoter-
distal regions have functional consequences? As RNA Pol
II occupies many ectopic peaks, we looked for evidence of
active transcription by measuring GRO-seq read density
over the central 500 base pairs (bp) of each peak. Indeed,
ectopic peaks showed increased transcription in both
Cfp1?/?and C169A rescue ES cells, where H3K4me3 is
the highest, when compared with wild-type and wild-type
is matched by increased transcription at ectopic peaks. As
active enhancers generally regulate the nearest flanking
genes (Visel et al. 2009; Creyghton et al. 2010; De Santa
et al. 2010; Kim et al. 2010; Rada-Iglesias et al. 2011), we
asked whether the presence of ectopic H3K4me3 peaks
affects nearby genes. A small yet significant increase in
expression of the gene proximal to each ectopic peak was
detected in both Cfp1?/?and C169A rescue ES cells, as
assayed by RNA Pol II occupancy (Fig. 6E) and GRO-seq
read density (Supplemental Fig. S9A). These data suggest
that aberrant H3K4me3 is associated with increased ex-
pression of the neighboring gene. RNA Pol II occupancy
and transcriptional activity at enhancers are an indica-
tion of their activity (De Santa et al. 2010; Kim et al. 2010;
Bonn etal. 2012). Wetherefore selected asubset of ectopic
peaks (25%) with the highest RNA Pol II occupancy based
on ChIP read density in Cfp1?/?ES cells and investigated
the effect of transcription of the proximal gene. As ex-
pected, higher RNA Pol II occupancy was linked with
increased expression of the nearest gene in Cfp1?/?and
C169A rescue ES cells (Fig. 6E; Supplemental Fig. S9A).
A similar effect was observed at 25% of ectopic peaks
showing the highest transcriptional activity by GRO-seq
(Fig. 6F; Supplemental Fig. S9B). We conclude that aber-
rant H3K4me3 accumulation at regulatory regions in the
absence of Cfp1 or its DNA-binding activity is function-
ally linked to increased expression of the neighboring
gene ina manner dependent on RNA Pol II occupancy and
transcriptional activity at those sites. This confirms that
the DNA-binding activity of Cfp1 restricts H3K4me3 to
its proper genomic compartment in ES cells, thereby pre-
venting misregulation of local gene expression.
Cfp1 function linked to transcription
The dinucleotide CpG is highly concentrated in CGIs
and can attract CxxC domain-containing chromatin-
modifying complexes (Blackledge et al. 2010; Thomson
et al. 2010). In a simple model, the CxxC protein Cfp1
could recruit the Set1 histone methyltransferase and
establish H3K4me3 at CGI promoters whether or not
they are transcriptionally active (Deaton and Bird 2010;
Blackledge and Klose 2011). In support of this idea, in-
sertion of promoter-less CpG-rich DNA can mediate de
novo accumulation of H3K4me3 in ES cells (Mendenhall
et al. 2010; Thomson et al. 2010). This basal level of
Cfp1 regulates proper H3K4me3 deposition
GENES & DEVELOPMENT 1723
H3K4me3 at CGIs might then be enhanced by transcrip-
tion of the associated gene; for example, via recruitment
of chromatin-modifying activities by RNA Pol II itself
(Smith and Shilatifard 2010). We evaluated this two-
component model by studying mutant ES cells that lack
Cfp1. Our results show that Cfp1 is not essential for basal
H3K4me3 at CGIs in mouse ES cells, but is an important
contributor to transcription-coupled deposition of this
mark. We found that Cfp1 deficiency preferentially de-
creased H3K4me3 at active gene promoters, whereas non-
productive (or ‘‘poised’’) genes, which do not produce
detectable mature mRNAs, were not affected. In mouse
brains or fibroblasts, most H3K4me3 at CGIs seems to
rely on the Cfp1/Set1 pathway (Thomson et al. 2010). Our
results suggest that a separate activity can maintain basal
H3K4me3 levels at poised promoters in ES cells. Mll1 and
Mll2, two CxxC domain H3K4 methyltransferases, are
present in ES cells (Glaser et al. 2006; Jiang et al. 2011).
Depletion of subunits shared by Set1 and Mll1/2 com-
plexes leads to reduction in H3K4me3 at both active and
‘‘poised’’ genes, unlike deficiency of Cfp1 alone (Ang et al.
2011; Jiang et al. 2011). We propose that in ES cells,
establishment of H3K4me3 at poised promoter CGIs (or
artificial GC-rich insertions) depends on CxxC domain
proteins other than Cfp1, likely Mll1 and/or Mll2.
Our findings may explain why ES cells and somatic
cells differ significantly in their requirements for specific
CxxC proteins. Loss of the Cfp1 gene in mice results in
early embryonic lethality (Carlone and Skalnik 2001).
Moreover Cfp1 deficiency in somatic cell lines is toxic
(Young and Skalnik 2007; Thomson et al. 2010). ES cells,
on the other hand, are robustly viable without Cfp1, al-
though their inability to differentiate suggests that Cfp1
is required uponlineage commitment(Carloneet al.2005).
Similarly, gene ablation studies have revealed changing
roles for Mll2 during mouse development (Glaser et al.
2006; Andreu-Vieyra et al. 2010) because in oocytes, it is
required for global H3K4me3, whereas later in develop-
ment, its role is much reduced. Others also report that
Mll proteins have specific roles during development, with
Set1 becoming the dominant H3K4 methyltransferase ac-
tivity at later developmental stages (Wu et al. 2008; Wang
et al. 2009; Ardehali et al. 2011; Mohan et al. 2011). Thus,
it appears thatthe contributionof CxxC proteins inshaping
chromatin varies during cellular differentiation.
Targeting Set1 and H3K4me3 at promoters
The dependency of highly transcribed genes on Cfp1 is
reminiscent of the role of Set1 in yeast, where RNA
polymerase is thought to directly recruit the complex
(Krogan et al. 2003; Ng et al. 2003). Accordingly, the Cfp1
ortholog in Drosophila, an organism that lacks CGIs, is
necessary to recruit dSet1 to transcription puffs on poly-
tene chromosomes (Ardehali et al. 2011). We found that
transcription-dependent enhancement of H3K4me3 by
Cfp1 does not require its DNA-binding domain, as it is
restored in Cfp1?/?cells by expression of CpG-binding-
deficient Cfp1. It follows that Cfp1 functions to link Set1
and the transcriptional apparatus in a manner that primarily
depends on gene activity rather than CGI binding. It is
unclear which region of Cfp1 mediates this function, al-
though Cfp1 contains redundant functional domains that
can rescue several phenotypic features of Cfp1?/?ES cells
(Tate et al. 2009a). The ability to bind DNA and interact
with Set1 appears to be key in this respect (Tate et al.
2009a). Cfp1 also contains a PHD finger, which in its yeast
ortholog can bind H3K4me3 (Shi et al. 2007) and may
therefore assist targeting to low-level H3K4me3 found
at active promoters in the absence of Cfp1. Other mech-
anisms in play to ensure that the Set1 complex is recruited
to chromatin include monoubiquitylation of histone H2B
(JS Lee et al. 2007), perhaps mediated by the Wdr82 protein
(Lee and Skalnik 2008; Wu et al. 2008) or the elongation
factor Paf1 (Krogan et al. 2003). It is apparent that proper
ers can be achieved by redundant mechanisms, several of
which involve domains of Cfp1.
H3K4me3 is not required for active transcription
Given the ubiquity of H3K4me3 as a mark of transcrip-
tional activity, we were surprised to find that drastic de-
creases in this chromatin mark did not necessarily lead to
reduced gene expression. It was previously reported that
depletion of Dpy-30, which leads to global H3K4me3
reduction in ES cells, had minimal effects on expression
of most genes (Jiang et al. 2011). We significantly extend
this observation by specifically interrogating genes that
show decreased H3K4me3 at their promoters using three
independent methods (expression arrays, GRO-seq, and
RNA Pol II ChIP-seq). Although several studies report
that H3K4me3 can attract specific PHD domain proteins
to promoters (Wysocka et al. 2006; Vermeulen et al. 2007;
Gaspar-Maia et al. 2009), we did not identify a specific
requirement for H3K4me3 in regulating transcriptional
activity. In yeast, Set1 is the only H3K4 histone methyl-
transferase, and its deletion abolishes global H3K4me1,
H3K4me2, and H3K4me3 (Schneider et al. 2005). Never-
theless, yeast Set1 is not an essential gene, as mutants are
viable, albeit slow-growing (Briggs et al. 2001; Miller et al.
2001), and do not display widespread transcriptome al-
terations (Miller et al. 2001; Guillemette et al. 2011).
H3K4me3 function may be gene-specific or may play al-
may modulate the kinetics of RNA Pol II elongation to
facilitate transcript processing (Terzi et al. 2011) or affect
antisense transcription of regulatory RNAs (van Dijk
etal.2011). Alternatively,as we rarelyobserveacomplete
lack of H3K4me3 upon Cfp1 deletion, it remains possible
that low levels can be sufficient to mediate the role of
H3K4me3 in transcription and splicing.
The CxxC domain of Cfp1 restricts Set1
activity to promoters
In addition to its effects at promoters, Cfp1 deficiency
caused increased H3K4me3 at many discrete sites across
the genome. Ectopic H3K4me3 peaks were not random,
but often coincided with regulatory regions, including
active and inactive enhancers and potential regulatory
Clouaire et al.
1724GENES & DEVELOPMENT
chromatin loops defined by CTCF and cohesin. Unlike
H3K4me3 deficiency at promoters, ectopic peaks of
H3K4me3 were not abolished by expression of the DNA-
binding mutant of Cfp1. Cfp1C169Aassociated with the
Set1 complex and is shown here to restore appropriate
levels of H3K4me3 at multiple TSSs. We conclude that
Cfp1 DNA-binding activity is essential for appropriate
deposition of H3K4me3, as it restricts the action of the
Set1 complex to its appropriate genomic compartment
(Fig. 7). The Cfp1 DNA-binding domain has been previ-
ously implicated by fluorescence microscopy in restrict-
ing Set1 to euchromatin (Tate et al. 2009b). Here, we show
that Cfp1 is also required for proper Set1 targeting within
euchromatin. By binding preferentially to CGIs, Cfp1 bi-
ases H3K4 methyltransferase activity toward promoters
and impedes unsupervised acquisition of this promoter-
like feature in regions of the genome that do not define
the 59 ends of genes. Thus, Cfp1 can integrate both CpG
content and gene activity in order to establish proper
H3K4me3 throughout the genome.
It is of interest that TAF3, a component of the basal
transcription factor TFIID, is found at nonpromoter re-
gions occupied by CTCF/cohesin and is implicated in gene
regulation (Liu et al. 2011). TAF3 is a PHD finger protein
known to bind H3K4me3 (Vermeulen et al. 2007), raising
the possibility that H3K4me3 outside promoters is nor-
mally functional. Disturbance of nonpromoter H3K4me3
levels in the absence of Cfp1 may therefore be partly
responsible for the inability of Cfp1?/?ES cells to differ-
entiate. Overall, our results implicate Cfp1 in the mainte-
nance of histone modification patterns. Lack of Cfp1—or
impairment of its DNA-binding activity—undoubtedly
affects the subdivision of chromatin into discrete ‘‘states’’
that distinguish, for example, active promoters and regu-
latory regions (Filion et al. 2010; Kharchenko et al. 2010;
Ernst et al. 2011). Cfp1 and, perhaps, other CxxC proteins
evidently play a central role in maintaining the balance
between the alternative conditions of chromatin.
Materials and methods
Anti-H3K4me3 was obtained from Millipore (07-473). All other
antibodies are listed in the Supplemental Material.
ES cell culture
ES cells were grown in gelatinized dishes in Glasgow MEM
(Gibco) supplemented with 10% fetal bovine serum (Hyclone),
2-mercaptoethanol (Gibco), and LIF. The C169A rescue cell line
was grown in the presence of 50 mg/mL hygromycin B (Invitrogen).
E14TG2a ES cells were used as wild-type ES cells. Other ES cell
lines (Cfp1?/?, wild-type rescue, and C169A rescue) have been
described previously (Carlone et al. 2005; Tate et al. 2009a).
genome-wide H3K4me3. (A) Multiple Cfp1-depen-
dent and Cfp1-independent mechanisms contribute
to targeting of the Set1 complex to transcriptionally
active CGI promoters in wild-type (wt) mouse ES
cells. Cfp1 binding to CpG-rich DNA minimizes
Set1 conversion of H3K4me1 to H3K4me3 (brown
diamonds and blue circles, respectively) in CpG-
poor regulatory regions, including binding sites for
CTCF, cohesin, or enhancers (marked by p300
binding) and uncharacterized regions bound by un-
known factors (marked by a question mark). (B) In
the absence of Cfp1, H3K4me3 is reduced at active
CGI promoters due to incorrect targeting of the Set1
complex and accumulates inappropriately at regula-
tory regions. This is accompanied by RNA Pol II
binding and transcription at these sites and in-
creased expression of the proximal gene. (C) Cfp1
that is unable to bind CpG cannot prevent aberrant
H3K4me3 accumulation at regulatory regions but is
able to correctly target the Set1 complex to tran-
scriptionally active promoters.
Model for the role of Cfp1 in regulating
Cfp1 regulates proper H3K4me3 deposition
GENES & DEVELOPMENT1725
ChIP and GRO
Detailed protocols can be found in the Supplemental Material.
MAP and CxxC affinity purification (CAP)
Sonicated genomic DNA from ES cells was processed for MAP
and CAP as previously described (Illingworth et al. 2010).
A detailed description of library preparation for high-throughput
sequencing as well as data analysis, generation of composite pro-
files and heat maps, and cluster analysis of ectopic peaks can be
found in the Supplemental Material. Data sets are described in
Supplemental Table S3.
Illumina BeadChip arrays
Total RNA was labeled using the TotalPrep RNA amplifica-
tion kit (Ambion) and was hybridized to Illumina MouseWG-6
BeadChip arrays. Three biological replicates were carried out
for each cell type. Bead level data were summarized using
Illumina BeadStudio, and data were normalized using the cubic
spline normalization method in BeadStudio. Subsequent analysis
was carried out using GeneSpring GX11 (Agilent Technologies).
Data were quantile-normalized between arrays, and the average
value for each replicates was given to each probe in each cell line.
Fold change and statistical significance were computed for each
probe using Genespring.
Data have been deposited under ArrayExpress accession numbers
E-ERAD-79, E-ERAD-80, E-ERAD-53, and E-MTAB-1198.
We thank L. Gibson, J. Burton, and their teams, and K. Auger and
S. Messager at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute for managing
and performing the DNA sequencing. Illumina BeadChip exper-
iments were performed at the Wellcome Trust Clinical Research
Facility, Edinburgh, by L. Evenden and L. Murphy. We also thank
M. Koerner, M. Lyst, and S. Lagger for a critical reading of the
manuscript. This work was funded by the Wellcome Trust
(091580), The Medical Research Council UK (G0800401), and
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