Abstract Background Although hatching is perhaps the most abrupt and profound metabolic challenge that a chicken must undergo; there have been no attempts to functionally map the metabolic pathways induced in liver during the embryo-to-hatchling transition. Furthermore, we know very little about the metabolic and regulatory factors that regulate lipid metabolism in late embryos or newly-hatched chicks. In the present study, we examined hepatic transcriptomes of 12 embryos and 12 hatchling chicks during the peri-hatch period—or the metabolic switch from chorioallantoic to pulmonary respiration. Results Initial hierarchical clustering revealed two distinct, albeit opposing, patterns of hepatic gene expression. Cluster A genes are largely lipolytic and highly expressed in embryos. While, Cluster B genes are lipogenic/thermogenic and mainly controlled by the lipogenic transcription factor THRSPA. Using pairwise comparisons of embryo and hatchling ages, we found 1272 genes that were differentially expressed between embryos and hatchling chicks, including 24 transcription factors and 284 genes that regulate lipid metabolism. The three most differentially-expressed transcripts found in liver of embryos were MOGAT1, DIO3 and PDK4, whereas THRSPA, FASN and DIO2 were highest in hatchlings. An unusual finding was the “ectopic” and extremely high differentially expression of seven feather keratin transcripts in liver of 16 day embryos, which coincides with engorgement of liver with yolk lipids. Gene interaction networks show several transcription factors, transcriptional co-activators/co-inhibitors and their downstream genes that exert a ‘ying-yang’ action on lipid metabolism during the embryo-to-hatching transition. These upstream regulators include ligand-activated transcription factors, sirtuins and Kruppel-like factors. Conclusions Our genome-wide transcriptional analysis has greatly expanded the hepatic repertoire of regulatory and metabolic genes involved in the embryo-to-hatchling transition. New knowledge was gained on interactive transcriptional networks and metabolic pathways that enable the abrupt switch from ectothermy (embryo) to endothermy (hatchling) in the chicken. Several transcription factors and their coactivators/co-inhibitors appear to exert opposing actions on lipid metabolism, leading to the predominance of lipolysis in embryos and lipogenesis in hatchlings. Our analysis of hepatic transcriptomes has enabled discovery of opposing, interconnected and interdependent transcriptional regulators that provide precise ying-yang or homeorhetic regulation of lipid metabolism during the critical embryo-to-hatchling transition
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