The bithorax complex (BX-C) in Drosophila melanogaster is a cluster of homeotic genes that determine body segment identity. Expression of these genes is governed by cis-regulatory domains, one for each parasegment. Stable repression of these domains depends on Polycomb Group (PcG) functions, which include trimethylation of lysine 27 of histone H3 (H3K27me3). To search for parasegment-specific signatures that reflect PcG function, chromatin from single parasegments was isolated and profiled. The H3K27me3 profiles across the BX-C in successive parasegments showed a ‘stairstep’ pattern that revealed sharp boundaries of the BX-C regulatory domains. Acetylated H3K27 was broadly enriched across active domains, in a pattern complementary to H3K27me3. The CCCTC-binding protein (CTCF) bound the borders between H3K27 modification domains; it was retained even in parasegments where adjacent domains lack H3K27me3. These findings provide a molecular definition of the homeotic domains, and implicate precisely positioned H3K27 modifications as a central determinant of segment identity.
Like other insects, the body of the fruit fly is divided into three main parts—the head, the thorax and the abdomen—and each part, in turn, is made up of several smaller segments. The bithorax complex is a cluster of three genes that together control the identity of the segments that make up the back half of the fruit fly's body. This gene cluster has been studied for several decades and these studies have helped to further our understanding of how genetic information is accessed and used to make an animal’s body plan.
Early on in a fruit fly embryo, stretches of DNA within the bithorax complex regulate where the complex's genes are switched on, and where they are switched off. Proteins called Polycomb group proteins then keep the silenced genes off, in part by adding small chemical marks to other proteins called histones. Most DNA in a cell is wrapped around histones, and the addition of such chemical marks causes the DNA to become more tightly packed. This prevents the bithorax complex genes from being accessed and switched on. It had previously been suggested that each segment might have a unique pattern of chemical marks on the bithorax complex histones, but evidence to support this idea was lacking.
Bowman et al. have now undertaken the technically challenging task of purifying the DNA and its histones from individual segments of fruit fly embryos. This revealed that segments closer to the embryo's head contain larger stretches of bithorax complex DNA covered with histones marked by the Polycomb group proteins. Bowman et al. also found that the coverage of chemical marks on the histones changed dramatically when one segment was compared to its neighboring segments. These sharp boundaries clearly outline which regulatory regions of the DNA are switched on and which are switch off; however the same pattern is not seen for the Polycomb group proteins themselves. Instead, within the bithorax complex, the pattern of these proteins is almost identical in different segments.
The challenge now is to understand how the chemical marks and the Polycomb group proteins work together to restrict access to DNA in such precise patterns. Also—since similar gene clusters control the development of the body plans of mammals—this, in turn, might help us to understand how the Polycomb group proteins perform similar functions in human development and disease.