The centromere, responsible for chromosome segregation during mitosis, is epigenetically defined by CENP-A containing chromatin. The amount of centromeric CENP-A has direct implications for both the architecture and epigenetic inheritance of centromeres. Using complementary strategies, we determined that typical human centromeres contain ∼400 molecules of CENP-A, which is controlled by a mass-action mechanism. This number, despite representing only ∼4% of all centromeric nucleosomes, forms a ∼50-fold enrichment to the overall genome. In addition, although pre-assembled CENP-A is randomly segregated during cell division, this amount of CENP-A is sufficient to prevent stochastic loss of centromere function and identity. Finally, we produced a statistical map of CENP-A occupancy at a human neocentromere and identified nucleosome positions that feature CENP-A in a majority of cells. In summary, we present a quantitative view of the centromere that provides a mechanistic framework for both robust epigenetic inheritance of centromeres and the paucity of neocentromere formation.
The genetic information in a cell is packed into structures called chromosomes. These contain strands of DNA wrapped around proteins called histones, which helps the long DNA chains to fit inside the relatively small nucleus of the cell.
When a cell divides, it is important that both of the new cells contain all of the genetic information found in the parent cell. Therefore, the chromosomes duplicate during cell division, with the two copies held together at a single region of the chromosome called the centromere. The centromere then recruits and coordinates the molecular machinery that separates the two copies into different cells.
Centromeres are inherited in an epigenetic manner. This means that there is no specific DNA sequence that defines the location of this structure on the chromosomes. Rather, a special type of histone, called CENP-A, is involved in defining its location. Bodor et al. use multiple techniques to show that human centromeres normally contain around 400 molecules of CENP-A, and that this number is crucial for ensuring that centromeres form in the right place. Interestingly, only a minority of the CENP-A molecules are located at centromeres; yet this is more than at any other region of the chromosome. This explains why centromeres are only formed at a single position on each chromosome.
When the chromosomes separate, the CENP-A molecules at the centromere are randomly divided between the two copies. In this way memory of the centromere location is maintained. If the number of copies of CENP-A inherited by one of the chromosomes drops below a threshold value, a centromere will not form. However, Bodor et al. found that the number of CENP-A molecules in a centromere is large enough, not only to support the formation of the centromere structure, but also to keep it above the threshold value in nearly all cases. This threshold is also high enough to make it unlikely that a centromere will form in the wrong place because of a random fluctuation in the number of CENP-A molecules. Therefore, the number of CENP-A molecules is crucial for controlling both the formation and the inheritance of the centromere.