We have identified a replication-independent histone variant, Hist2h2be (referred to herein as H2be), which is expressed exclusively by olfactory chemosensory neurons. Levels of H2BE are heterogeneous among olfactory neurons, but stereotyped according to the identity of the co-expressed olfactory receptor (OR). Gain- and loss-of-function experiments demonstrate that changes in H2be expression affect olfactory function and OR representation in the adult olfactory epithelium. We show that H2BE expression is reduced by sensory activity and that it promotes neuronal cell death, such that inactive olfactory neurons display higher levels of the variant and shorter life spans. Post-translational modifications (PTMs) of H2BE differ from those of the canonical H2B, consistent with a role for H2BE in altering transcription. We propose a physiological function for H2be in modulating olfactory neuron population dynamics to adapt the OR repertoire to the environment.
A hallmark of the nervous systems of all mammals is their capacity to undergo changes in function that are shaped by experience. This phenomenon underlies the ability of our brains to develop properly and to learn, and also enables various sensory systems—including the visual, auditory and olfactory systems—to perform optimally in diverse environments.
In most mammals, a high-functioning olfactory system is essential for carrying out tasks that are crucial for survival, such as finding food, avoiding predators and mating. In general, sensory systems have to decipher only a limited collection of stimuli, but the olfactory system must be able to process information from thousands of distinct odors that are found in a given environment and which may vary dramatically from one environment to the next. Each odor-sensing neuron in the nose of a mammal contains just one kind of odorant receptor protein, although mammalian genomes typically encode 1000 or so different kinds of receptor proteins. This suggests that it might be possible to ‘tune’ the olfactory system to a particular environment by changing the relative numbers of the different types of neurons. Indeed, it is known that the relative abundance of each type of odor-sensing neuron changes with age and experience, and that these changes might be caused by variations in the lifespans of the neurons.
Although our understanding of how these experience-dependent changes are orchestrated at the molecular level is far from complete, it is clear that adjustments in the levels of specific gene products is necessary. But how do experiences alter the levels of gene products to give rise to lasting changes in the brain? One hypothesis is that changes to a structure called chromatin are key to this process: chromatin is an assembly of DNA molecules, which are quite long, and organizing proteins, mostly proteins known as histones, that together form a compact structure that can fit inside the nucleus of a cell.
Santoro and Dulac have now discovered a previously uncharacterized protein called H2BE that is found only in the odor-sensing neurons of mice. H2BE is a variant of a protein called H2B, which is a well-known histone. They found that in odor-sensing neurons, H2BE replaces H2B to an extent that depends on the amount of activity experienced by the neuron: H2BE is nearly undetectable in highly active neurons, but almost completely replaces H2B in neurons that are inactive. Moreover, genetic manipulation showed that the deletion of H2BE significantly extended the lifespan of neurons, whereas elevated levels of H2BE shortened their lifespan. These findings reveal an extraordinary process that involves inactive odor-sensing neurons being depleted relative to active ones over time.
How does H2BE, which differs from H2B by just five amino acids, cause such dramatic changes in neuronal composition? One hint comes from evidence that these amino acids disrupt interactions between chromatin and ‘effector’ proteins, which modulate gene activity. Consistent with this, Santoro and Dulac have found that the replacement of H2B by H2BE strongly alters gene activity, although the precise mechanism by which these alterations regulate neuronal lifespans remains to be determined. Understanding this process in detail, and exploring if similar phenomena are involved in experience-dependent changes elsewhere in the nervous system, are fascinating areas of future research.