The eukaryotic nucleosome is the fundamental unit of chromatin, comprising a protein octamer that wraps ∼147 bp of DNA and has essential roles in DNA compaction, replication and gene expression. Nucleosomes and chromatin have historically been considered to be unique to eukaryotes, yet studies of select archaea have identified homologs of histone proteins that assemble into tetrameric nucleosomes. Here we report the first archaeal genome-wide nucleosome occupancy map, as observed in the halophile Haloferax volcanii. Nucleosome occupancy was compared with gene expression by compiling a comprehensive transcriptome of Hfx. volcanii. We found that archaeal transcripts possess hallmarks of eukaryotic chromatin structure: nucleosome-depleted regions at transcriptional start sites and conserved −1 and +1 promoter nucleosomes. Our observations demonstrate that histones and chromatin architecture evolved before the divergence of Archaea and Eukarya, suggesting that the fundamental role of chromatin in the regulation of gene expression is ancient.
Single-celled microorganisms called archaea are one of the three domains of cellular life, along with bacteria and eukaryotes. Archaea are similar to bacteria in that they do not have nuclei, but genetically they have more in common with eukaryotes. Archaea are found in a wide range of habitats including the human colon, marshlands, the ocean and extreme environments such as hot springs and salt lakes.
It has been known since the 1990s that the DNA of archaea is wrapped around histones to form complexes that closely resemble the nucleosomes found in eukaryotes, albeit with four rather than eight histone subunits. Nucleosomes are the fundamental units of chromatin, the highly-ordered and compact structure that all the DNA in a cell is packed into. Now we know exactly how many nucleosomes are present in a given cell for some eukaryotes, notably yeast, and to a good approximation we know the position of each nucleosome during a variety of metabolic states and physiological conditions. We can also quantify the nucleosome occupancy, which is measure of the length of time that the nucleosomes spend in contact with the DNA: this is a critical piece of information because it determines the level of access that other proteins, including those that regulate gene expression, have to the DNA. These advances have been driven in large part by advances in technology, notably high-density microarrays for genome wide-studies of nucleosome occupancy, and massively parallel sequencing for direct nucleosome sequencing.
Ammar et al. have used these techniques to explore how the DNA of Haloferax volcanii, a species of archaea that thrives in the hyper-salty waters of the Dead Sea, is organized on a genome-wide basis. Despite some clear differences between the genomes of archaea and eukaryotes—for example, genomic DNA is typically circular in archaea and linear in eukaryotes—they found that the genome of Hfx. volcanii is organized into chromatin in a way that is remarkably similar to that seen in all eukaryotic genomes studied to date. This is surprising given that the chromatin in eukaryotes is confined to the nucleus, whereas there are no such constraints in archaea. In particular, Ammar et al. found that those regions of the DNA near the ends of genes that mark where the transcription of the DNA into RNA should begin and end contain have lower nucleosome occupancy than other regions. Moreover, the overall level of occupancy in Hfx. volcanii was twice that of eukaryotes, which is what one would expect given that nucleosomes in archaea contain half as many histone subunits as nucleosomes in eukaryotes. Ammar et al. also confirmed that that the degree of nucleosome occupancy is correlated with gene expression.
These two findings—the similarities between the chromatin in archaea and eukaryotes, and the correlation between nucleosome occupancy and gene expression in archaea—raise an interesting evolutionary possibility: the initial function of nucleosomes and chromatin formation might have been for the regulation of gene expression rather than the packaging of DNA. This is consistent with two decades of research that has shown that there is an extraordinary and complex relationship between the structure of chromatin and the process of gene expression. It is possible, therefore, that as the early eukaryotes evolved, nucleosomes and chromatin started to package DNA into compact structures that, among other things, helped to prevent DNA damage, and that this subsequently enabled the early eukaryotes to flourish.