Histone

In biology, histones are highly alkaline proteins found in eukaryotic cell nuclei that package and order the DNA into structural units called nucleosomes. They are the chief protein components of chromatin, acting as spools around which DNA winds, and playing a role in gene regulation. Without histones, the unwound DNA in chromosomes would be very long (a length to width ratio of more than 10 million to 1 in human DNA). For example, each human diploid cell (containing 23 pairs of chromosomes) has about 1.8 meters of DNA; wound on the histones, the diploid cell has about 90 micrometers (0.09 mm) of chromatin. When the diploid cells are duplicated and condensed during mitosis, the result is about 120 micrometers of chromosomes.

The nucleosome core is formed of two H2A-H2B dimers and a H3-H4 tetramer, forming two nearly symmetrical halves by tertiary structure (C2 symmetry; one macromolecule is the mirror image of the other). The H2A-H2B dimers and H3-H4 tetramer also show pseudodyad symmetry. The 4 'core' histones (H2A, H2B, H3 and H4) are relatively similar in structure and are highly conserved through evolution, all featuring a 'helix turn helix turn helix' motif (DNA-binding protein motif that recognize specific DNA sequence). They also share the feature of long 'tails' on one end of the amino acid structure - this being the location of post-translational modification (see below).

In general, genes that are active have less bound histone, while inactive genes are highly associated with histones during interphase. It also appears that the structure of histones has been evolutionarily conserved, as any deleterious mutations would be severely maladaptive. All histones have a highly positively charged N-terminus with many lysine and arginine residues.

Also in the 1960s, Vincent Allfrey and Alfred Mirsky had suggested, based on their analyses of histones, that acetylation and methylation of histones could provide a transcriptional control mechanism, but did not have available the kind of detailed analysis that later investigators were able to conduct to show how such regulation could be gene-specific. Until the early 1990s, histones were dismissed by most as inert packing material for eukaryotic nuclear DNA, a view based in part on the models of Mark Ptashne and others, who believed that transcription was activated by protein-DNA and protein-protein interactions on largely naked DNA templates, as is the case in bacteria.

Histones undergo posttranslational modifications that alter their interaction with DNA and nuclear proteins. The H3 and H4 histones have long tails protruding from the nucleosome, which can be covalently modified at several places. Modifications of the tail include methylation, acetylation, phosphorylation, ubiquitination, SUMOylation, citrullination, and ADP-ribosylation. The core of the histones H2A and H2B can also be modified. Combinations of modifications are thought to constitute a code, the so-called "histone code". Histone modifications act in diverse biological processes such as gene regulation, DNA repair, chromosome condensation (mitosis) and spermatogenesis (meiosis).

Addition of an acetyl group has a major chemical effect on lysine as it neutralises the positive charge. This reduces electrostatic attraction between the histone and the negatively charged DNA backbone, loosening the chromatin structure; highly acetylated histones form more accessible chromatin and tend to be associated with active transcription. Lysine acetylation appears to be less precise in meaning than methylation, in that histone acetyltransferases tend to act on more than one lysine; presumably this reflects the need to alter multiple lysines to have a significant effect on chromatin structure. The modification includes H3K27ac.

Analysis of histone modifications in embryonic stem cells (and other stem cells) revealed many gene promoters carrying both H3K4Me3 and H3K27Me3, in other words these promoters display both activating and repressing marks simultaneously. This peculiar combination of modifications marks genes that are poised for transcription; they are not required in stem cells, but are rapidly required after differentiation into some lineages. Once the cell starts to differentiate, these bivalent promoters are resolved to either active or repressive states depending on the chosen lineage.

Cigarette smokers (about 15% of the US population) are usually addicted to nicotine. After 7 days of nicotine treatment of mice, acetylation of both histone H3 and histone H4 was increased at the FosB promoter in the nucleus accumbens of the brain, causing 61% increase in FosB expression. This would also increase expression of the splice variant Delta FosB. In the nucleus accumbens of the brain, Delta FosB functions as a "sustained molecular switch" and "master control protein" in the development of an addiction.

Nuclear protein Ataxia-Telangiectasia (NPAT), also known as nuclear protein coactivator of histone transcription, is a transcription factor which activates histone gene transcription on chromosomes 1 and 6 of human cells. NPAT is also a substrate of cyclin E-Cdk2, which is required for the transition between G1 phase and S phase. NPAT activates histone gene expression only after it has been phosphorylated by the G1/S-Cdk cyclin E-Cdk2 in early S phase. This shows an important regulatory link between cell-cycle control and histone synthesis.

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