Appropriate regulation of gene expression is necessary for correct development and homeostasis of organisms. Epigenetic mechanisms represent an additional layer of information, besides the genetic sequence, crucial for the correct functioning of each cell. Histone modifications, which modulate and are associated to transcriptional activation or repression, are a major epigenetic feature.
We develop quantitative models to characterize the relationship of gene expression with histone modifications at enhancers or promoters. We use embryonic stem cells (ESCs), which contain a full spectrum of active and repressed (poised) enhancers, to train predictive models. As many poised enhancers in ESCs switch towards an active state during differentiation, predictive models can also be trained on poised enhancers throughout differentiation and in development. Remarkably, we determine that histone modifications at enhancers, as well as promoters, are predictive of gene expression in ESCs and throughout differentiation and development. Importantly, we demonstrate that their contribution to the predictive models varies depending on their location in enhancers or promoters. Moreover, we use a local regression (LOESS) to normalize sequencing data from different sources, which allows us to apply predictive models trained in a specific cellular context to a different one. We conclude that the relationship between gene expression and histone modifications at enhancers is universal and different from promoters. Our study provides new insight into how histone modifications relate to gene expression based on their location in enhancers or promoters.