Deciphering the intricate molecular processes that orchestrate the spatial and temporal regulation of genes has become an increasingly major focus of biological research. The differential expression of genes by diverse cell types with a common genome is a hallmark of complex cellular functions, as well as the basis for multicellular life. Importantly, a more coherent understanding of gene regulation is critical for defining developmental processes, evolutionary principles and disease etiologies. Here we present our current understanding of gene regulation by focusing on the role of enhancer elements in these complex processes. Although functional genomic methods have provided considerable advances to our understanding of gene regulation, these assays, which are usually performed on a genome-wide scale, typically provide correlative observations that lack functional interpretation. Recent innovations in genome editing technologies have placed gene regulatory studies at an exciting crossroads, as systematic, functional evaluation of enhancers and other transcriptional regulatory elements can now be performed in a coordinated, high-throughput manner across the entire genome. This review provides insights on transcriptional enhancer function, their role in development and disease, and catalogues experimental tools commonly used to study these elements. Additionally, we discuss the crucial role of novel techniques in deciphering the complex gene regulatory landscape and how these studies will shape future research.
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