Differential regulation of telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) genes contribute to distinct aging and tumorigenic processes in humans and mice. To study TERT regulation, we generated mouse embryonic stem cell (ESC) lines containing single-copy bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC) reporters, covering hTERT and mTERT genes and their neighboring loci, via recombinase-mediated BAC targeting. ESC lines with chimeric BACs, in which two TERT promoters were swapped, were also generated. Using these chromatinized BACs, we showed that hTERT silencing during differentiation to embryoid bodies (EBs) and to fibroblast-like cells was driven by the human-specific genomic context and accompanied by increases of repressive epigenetic marks, H3K9me3 and H3K27me3, near its promoter. Conversely, the mouse genomic context did not repress TERT transcription until late during differentiation. The hTERT promoter was more active than its mouse counterpart when compared in the same genomic contexts. Mutations of E-box and E2F consensus sites at the promoter had little effect on hTERT transcription in ESCs. However, the mutant promoters were rapidly silenced upon EB differentiation, indicating that transcription factors (TFs) bound to these sites were critical in maintaining hTERT transcription during differentiation. Together, our study revealed a dynamic hTERT regulation by chromatin environment and promoter-bound TFs during ESC differentiation.
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