ERK1/2 signalling dynamics promote neural differentiation by regulating chromatin accessibility and the polycomb repressive complex

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Fibroblast growth factor (FGF) is a neural inducer in many vertebrate embryos, but how it regulates chromatin organization to coordinate the activation of neural genes is unclear. Moreover, for differentiation to progress, FGF signalling must decline. Why these signalling dynamics are required has not been determined. Here, we show that dephosphorylation of the FGF effector kinase ERK1/2 rapidly increases chromatin accessibility at neural genes in mouse embryos, and, using ATAC-seq in human embryonic stem cell derived spinal cord precursors, we demonstrate that this occurs genome-wide across neural genes. Importantly, ERK1/2 inhibition induces precocious neural gene transcription, and this involves dissociation of the polycomb repressive complex from key gene loci. This takes place independently of subsequent loss of the repressive histone mark H3K27me3 and transcriptional onset. Transient ERK1/2 inhibition is sufficient for the dissociation of the repressive complex, and this is not reversed on resumption of ERK1/2 signalling. Moreover, genomic footprinting of sites identified by ATAC-seq together with ChIP-seq for polycomb protein Ring1B revealed that ERK1/2 inhibition promotes the occupancy of neural transcription factors (TFs) at non-polycomb as well as polycomb associated sites. Together, these findings indicate that ERK1/2 signalling decline promotes global changes in chromatin accessibility and TF binding at neural genes by directing polycomb and other regulators and appears to serve as a gating mechanism that provides directionality to the process of differentiation.