Development is orchestrated by regulatory elements that turn genes ON or OFF in precise spatial and temporal patterns. Many safety mechanisms prevent inappropriate action of a regulatory element on the wrong gene promoter. In flies and mammals, dedicated DNA elements (insulators) recruit protein factors (insulator binding proteins, or IBPs) to shield promoters from regulatory elements. In mammals, a single IBP called CCCTC-binding factor (CTCF) is known, whereas genetic and biochemical analyses in Drosophila
have identified a larger repertoire of IBPs. How insulators function at the molecular level is not fully understood, but it is currently thought that they fold chromosomes into conformations that affect regulatory element-promoter communication. Here, we review the discovery of insulators and describe their properties. We discuss recent genetic studies in flies and mice to address the question: Is gene insulation important for animal development? Comparing and contrasting observations in these two species reveal that they have different requirements for insulation, but that insulation is a conserved and critical gene regulation strategy.
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