Despite the well-established role of heterochromatin in protecting chromosomal integrity during meiosis and mitosis, the contribution and extent of heterochromatic histone posttranslational modifications (PTMs) remain poorly defined. Here, we gained novel functional insight about heterochromatic PTMs by analyzing histone H3 purified from the heterochromatic germline micronucleus of the model organism Tetrahymena thermophila. Mass spectrometric sequencing of micronuclear H3 identified H3K23 trimethylation (H3K23me3), a previously uncharacterized PTM. H3K23me3 became particularly enriched during meiotic leptotene and zygotene in germline chromatin of Tetrahymena and C. elegans. Loss of H3K23me3 in Tetrahymena through deletion of the methyltransferase Ezl3p caused mislocalization of meiosis-induced DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) to heterochromatin, and a decrease in progeny viability. These results show that an evolutionarily conserved developmental pathway regulates H3K23me3 during meiosis, and our studies in Tetrahymena suggest this pathway may function to protect heterochromatin from DSBs.
Inside the nucleus of a cell, the DNA is wound around histone proteins. This forms a structure called chromatin that allows the long DNA strands to fit inside the cell. Variations in chromatin structure also help the cell to control the functional properties of DNA. For example, a large proportion of chromatin in the cell is in the form of heterochromatin, which is very densely packed, and is associated with many roles such as gene silencing and keeping DNA intact during reproduction.
Many animals and plants have two copies of each DNA molecule: one inherited from the mother, and one from the father of the organism. Reproductive cells undergo a process called recombination when they form, where the matching copies of each DNA molecule break in a number of places and rejoin to form a new ‘blend’ of their mother's and their father's DNA, which is passed on to their own offspring. In contrast, most heterochromatin is inherited without recombining, preserving it in an unaltered form. This is important since recombination in heterochromatin can create genetic abnormalities.
Adding small chemical modifications—such as methyl groups—to the histone proteins at the core of the chromatin can change how the DNA is packed. However, the histone modifications that yield different chromatin structures, and the effect of these modifications, are not very well understood.
Papazyan et al. have taken advantage of a distinct feature of the protozoan Tetrahymena thermophila: a single-celled organism that divides its chromatin into two different nuclei. The smaller micronuclei contain only heterochromatin, and Papazyan et al. discovered that the histone H3 protein in the micronuclei is modified by methyl groups at a specific site that had not been studied before. Furthermore, this protozoan makes more of these modifications when it reproduces. An enzyme called Ezl3p adds these methyl groups, and without this enzyme T. thermophila reproduces more slowly and has offspring that are less likely to survive and more likely to be infertile. Papazyan et al. provide evidence that these characteristics arise because the cells without the histone modification are unable to prevent DNA breaks from occurring in heterochromatin during recombination.
The same histone modification also occurs when the microscopic worm Caenorhabditis elegans reproduces, suggesting that this method of DNA protection has been conserved throughout evolution. Papazyan et al. propose that the histone modification may prevent another enzyme that induces DNA breaks from accessing the heterochromatin in reproductive cells; but more work is required to support this hypothesis.
These findings reveal the importance of a new histone modification during reproduction, and could provide new directions for infertility research.