Development is regulated by coordinated changes in gene expression. Control of these changes in expression is largely governed by the binding of transcription factors to specific regulatory elements. However, the packaging of DNA into chromatin prevents the binding of many transcription factors. Pioneer factors overcome this barrier owing to unique properties that enable them to bind closed chromatin, promote accessibility and, in so doing, mediate binding of additional factors that activate gene expression. Because of these properties, pioneer factors act at the top of gene-regulatory networks and drive developmental transitions. Despite the ability to bind target motifs in closed chromatin, pioneer factors have cell type-specific chromatin occupancy and activity. Thus, developmental context clearly shapes pioneer-factor function. Here, we discuss this reciprocal interplay between pioneer factors and development: how pioneer factors control changes in cell fate and how cellular environment influences pioneer-factor binding and activity.

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