Neuronal gene transcription is repressed in non-neuronal cells by the repressor element 1 (RE-1)-silencing transcription factor/neuron-restrictive silencer factor (REST/NRSF) complex. To understand how this silencing is achieved, we examined a family of class-C RNA polymerase II (RNAPII) carboxyl-terminal domain (CTD) phosphatases [small CTD phosphatases (SCPs) 1 to 3], whose expression is restricted to non-neuronal tissues. We show that REST/NRSF recruits SCPs to neuronal genes that contain RE-1 elements, leading to neuronal gene silencing in non-neuronal cells. Phosphatase-inactive forms of SCP interfere with REST/NRSF function and promote neuronal differentiation of P19 stem cells. Likewise, small interfering RNA directed to the single Drosophila SCP unmasks neuronal gene expression in S2 cells. Thus, SCP activity is an evolutionary conserved transcriptional regulator that acts globally to silence neuronal genes.
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