The Autoimmune Regulator (AIRE) protein is expressed in thymic medullary epithelial cells, where it promotes the ectopic expression of tissue-restricted antigens needed for efficient negative selection of developing thymocytes. Mutations in AIRE cause APECED syndrome, which is characterized by a breakdown of self-tolerance. The molecular mechanism by which AIRE increases the expression of a variety of different genes remains unknown. Here, we studied AIRE-regulated genes using whole genome expression analysis and chromatin immunoprecipitation. We show that AIRE preferentially activates genes that are tissue-specific and characterized by low levels of initial expression in stably transfected HEK293 cell model and mouse thymic medullary epithelial cells. In addition, the AIRE-regulated genes lack active chromatin marks, such as histone H3 trimethylation (H3K4me3) and acetylation (AcH3), on their promoters. We also show that during activation by AIRE, the target genes acquire histone H3 modifications associated with transcription and RNA polymerase II. In conclusion, our data show that AIRE is able to promote ectopic gene expression from chromatin associated with histone modifications characteristic to inactive genes.

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