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Recent chromatin mapping data have suggested that trait-associated variants often mark regulatory DNA. However, there has been little rigorous experimental investigation of regulatory variation. Bauer et al. (p. 253; see the Perspective by Hardison and Blobel) performed an in-depth study of the BCL11A fetal hemoglobin-associated locus. The trait-associated variants revealed a chromatin signature that enhanced erythroid development. The enhancer was required for erythroid expression of BCL11A and thus for globin gene expression.
Genome-wide association studies (GWASs) have ascertained numerous trait-associated common genetic variants, frequently localized to regulatory DNA. We found that common genetic variation at BCL11A associated with fetal hemoglobin (HbF) level lies in noncoding sequences decorated by an erythroid enhancer chromatin signature. Fine-mapping uncovers a motif-disrupting common variant associated with reduced transcription factor (TF) binding, modestly diminished BCL11A expression, and elevated HbF. The surrounding sequences function in vivo as a developmental stage–specific, lineage-restricted enhancer. Genome engineering reveals the enhancer is required in erythroid but not B-lymphoid cells for BCL11A expression. These findings illustrate how GWASs may expose functional variants of modest impact within causal elements essential for appropriate gene expression. We propose the GWAS-marked BCL11A enhancer represents an attractive target for therapeutic genome engineering for the β-hemoglobinopathies.