Research Article

Transcriptome and epigenome landscape of human cortical development modeled in organoids

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Science  14 Dec 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6420, eaat6720
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat6720

Structured Abstract


The human cerebral cortex has undergone an extraordinary increase in size and complexity during mammalian evolution. Cortical cell lineages are specified in the embryo, and genetic and epidemiological evidence implicates early cortical development in the etiology of neuropsychiatric disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), intellectual disabilities, and schizophrenia. Most of the disease-implicated genomic variants are located outside of genes, and the interpretation of noncoding mutations is lagging behind owing to limited annotation of functional elements in the noncoding genome.


We set out to discover gene-regulatory elements and chart their dynamic activity during prenatal human cortical development, focusing on enhancers, which carry most of the weight upon regulation of gene expression. We longitudinally modeled human brain development using human induced pluripotent stem cell (hiPSC)–derived cortical organoids and compared organoids to isogenic fetal brain tissue.


Fetal fibroblast–derived hiPSC lines were used to generate cortically patterned organoids and to compare oganoids’ epigenome and transcriptome to that of isogenic fetal brains and external datasets. Organoids model cortical development between 5 and 16 postconception weeks, thus enabling us to study transitions from cortical stem cells to progenitors to early neurons. The greatest changes occur at the transition from stem cells to progenitors. The regulatory landscape encompasses a total set of 96,375 enhancers linked to target genes, with 49,640 enhancers being active in organoids but not in mid-fetal brain, suggesting major roles in cortical neuron specification. Enhancers that gained activity in the human lineage are active in the earliest stages of organoid development, when they target genes that regulate the growth of radial glial cells.

Parallel weighted gene coexpression network analysis (WGCNA) of transcriptome and enhancer activities defined a number of modules of coexpressed genes and coactive enhancers, following just six and four global temporal patterns that we refer to as supermodules, likely reflecting fundamental programs in embryonic and fetal brain. Correlations between gene expression and enhancer activity allowed stratifying enhancers into two categories: activating regulators (A-regs) and repressive regulators (R-regs). Several enhancer modules converged with gene modules, suggesting that coexpressed genes are regulated by enhancers with correlated patterns of activity. Furthermore, enhancers active in organoids and fetal brains were enriched for ASD de novo variants that disrupt binding sites of homeodomain, Hes1, NR4A2, Sox3, and NFIX transcription factors.


We validated hiPSC-derived cortical organoids as a suitable model system for studying gene regulation in human embryonic brain development, evolution, and disease. Our results suggest that organoids may reveal how noncoding mutations contribute to ASD etiology.

Summary of the study, analyses, and main results.

Data were generated for iPSC-derived human telencephalic organoids and isogenic fetal cortex. Organoids modeled embryonic and early fetal cortex and show a larger repertoire of enhancers. Enhancers could be divided into activators and repressors of gene expression. We derived networks of modules and supermodules with correlated gene and enhancer activities, some of which were implicated in autism spectrum disorders (ASD).


Genes implicated in neuropsychiatric disorders are active in human fetal brain, yet difficult to study in a longitudinal fashion. We demonstrate that organoids from human pluripotent cells model cerebral cortical development on the molecular level before 16 weeks postconception. A multiomics analysis revealed differentially active genes and enhancers, with the greatest changes occurring at the transition from stem cells to progenitors. Networks of converging gene and enhancer modules were assembled into six and four global patterns of expression and activity across time. A pattern with progressive down-regulation was enriched with human-gained enhancers, suggesting their importance in early human brain development. A few convergent gene and enhancer modules were enriched in autism-associated genes and genomic variants in autistic children. The organoid model helps identify functional elements that may drive disease onset.

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