Indexed on: 11 Apr '17Published on: 11 Apr '17Published in: eLife
Combinatorial patterns of histone modifications regulate developmental and cell type-specific gene expression and underpin animal complexity, but it is unclear when this regulatory system evolved. By analysing histone modifications in a morphologically-simple, early branching animal, the sponge Amphimedon queenslandica, we show that the regulatory landscape used by complex bilaterians was already in place at the dawn of animal multicellularity. This includes distal enhancers, repressive chromatin and transcriptional units marked by H3K4me3 that vary with levels of developmental regulation. Strikingly, Amphimedon enhancers are enriched in metazoan-specific microsyntenic units, suggesting that their genomic location is extremely ancient and likely to place constraints on the evolution of surrounding genes. These results suggest that the regulatory foundation for spatiotemporal gene expression evolved prior to the divergence of sponges and eumetazoans, and was necessary for the evolution of animal multicellularity.