Hox genes controlling motor neuron subtype identity are expressed in rostrocaudal patterns that are spatially and temporally collinear with their chromosomal organization. Here we demonstrate that Hox chromatin is subdivided into discrete domains that are controlled by rostrocaudal patterning signals that trigger rapid, domain-wide clearance of repressive histone H3 Lys27 trimethylation (H3K27me3) polycomb modifications. Treatment of differentiating mouse neural progenitors with retinoic acid leads to activation and binding of retinoic acid receptors (RARs) to the Hox1-Hox5 chromatin domains, which is followed by a rapid domain-wide removal of H3K27me3 and acquisition of cervical spinal identity. Wnt and fibroblast growth factor (FGF) signals induce expression of the Cdx2 transcription factor that binds and clears H3K27me3 from the Hox1-Hox9 chromatin domains, leading to specification of brachial or thoracic spinal identity. We propose that rapid clearance of repressive modifications in response to transient patterning signals encodes global rostrocaudal neural identity and that maintenance of these chromatin domains ensures the transmission of positional identity to postmitotic motor neurons later in development.
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