Global reference mapping of human transcription factor footprints
- Combinatorial binding of transcription factors to regulatory DNA underpins gene regulation in all organisms. Genetic variation in regulatory regions has been connected with diseases and diverse phenotypic traits, but it remains challenging to distinguish variants that affect regulatory function. Genomic DNase I footprinting enables the quantitative, nucleotide-resolution delineation of sites of transcription factor occupancy within native chromatin. However, only a small fraction of such sites have been precisely resolved on the human genome sequence. Here, to enable comprehensive mapping of transcription factor footprints, we produced high-density DNase I cleavage maps from 243 human cell and tissue types and states and integrated these data to delineate about 4.5 million compact genomic elements that encode transcription factor occupancy at nucleotide resolution. We map the fine-scale structure within about 1.6 million DNase I-hypersensitive sites and show that the overwhelming majority are populated by well-spaced sites of single transcription factor–DNA interaction. Cell-context-dependent cis-regulation is chiefly executed by wholesale modulation of accessibility at regulatory DNA rather than by differential transcription factor occupancy within accessible elements. We also show that the enrichment of genetic variants associated with diseases or phenotypic traits in regulatory regions is almost entirely attributable to variants within footprints, and that functional variants that affect transcription factor occupancy are nearly evenly partitioned between loss- and gain-of-function alleles. Unexpectedly, we find increased density of human genetic variation within transcription factor footprints, revealing an unappreciated driver of cis-regulatory evolution. Our results provide a framework for both global and nucleotide-precision analyses of gene regulatory mechanisms and functional genetic variation.