Forcob S, Bulic A, Jönsson F, Lipps HJ, Postberg J
BACKGROUND: Regulation of chromatin structure involves deposition of selective histone variants into nucleosome arrays. Numerous histone H3 variants become differentially expressed by individual nanochromosomes in the course of macronuclear differentiation in the spirotrichous ciliate Stylonychia lemnae. Their biological relevance remains to be elucidated. RESULTS: We show that the differential assembly of H3 variants into chromatin is strongly correlated with the functional separation of chromatin structures in developing macronuclei during sexual reproduction in Stylonychia, thus probably determining the fate of specific sequences. Specific H3 variants approximately 15 kDa or 20 kDa in length are selectively targeted by post-translational modifications. We found that only the 15 kDa H3 variants including H3.3 and H3.5, accumulate in the early developing macronucleus, and these also occur in mature macronuclei. H3.7 is a 20 kDa variant that specifically becomes enriched in macronuclear anlagen during chromosome polytenization. H3.7, acetylated at lysine-32 (probably equivalent to lysine-36 of most H3 variants), is specifically associated with a sequence class that is retained in the mature macronucleus and therefore does not undergo developmental DNA elimination. H3.8 is another 20 kDa variant that is restricted to the micronucleus. H3.8 is selectively targeted by lysine methylation and by serine or threonine phosphorylation. Intriguingly, the expression and chromatin localization of the histone variant H3.3 was impaired during macronuclear differentiation after RNA interference knock-down of Piwi expression. CONCLUSIONS: Differential deposition of H3 variants into chromatin strongly correlates with the functional distinction of genomic sequence classes on the chromatin level, thus helping to determine the fate of specific DNA sequences during sexual reproduction in Stylonychia. Consequently, H3 variants are selectively targeted by post-translational modifications, possibly as a result of deviations within the recognition motifs, which allow binding of effector proteins. We propose that differential assembly of histone variants into chromatin of various nuclear types could contribute to nuclear identity, for example, during differential development of either new micronuclei or a macronuclear anlage from mitosis products of the zygote nucleus (synkaryon). The observation that the Piwi-non-coding RNA (ncRNA) pathway influences the expression and deposition of H3.3 in macronuclear anlagen indicates for the first time that selective histone variant assembly into chromatin might possibly depend on ncRNA.