At the crossroads of chromosomes

PHILADELPHIA — On average, one hundred billion cells in the human body divide over the course of a day. Most of the time the body gets it right but sometimes, problems in cell replication can lead to abnormalities in chromosomes resulting in many types of disorders, from cancer to Down Syndrome.

Now, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine have defined the structure of a key molecule that plays a central role in how DNA is duplicated and then moved correctly and equally into two daughter cells to produce two exact copies of the mother cell. Without this molecule, entire chromosomes could be lost during cell division.

Ben Black, PhD, assistant professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics, and Nikolina Sekulic, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Black lab, report in the September 16 issue of Nature the structure of the CENP-A molecule, which defines a part of the chromosome called the centromere. This is a constricted area to which specialized molecules called spindle fibers attach that help pull daughter cells apart during cell division.

“Our work gives us the first high-resolution view of the molecules that control genetic inheritance at cell division,” says Black. “This is a big step forward in a puzzle that biologists have been chipping away at for over 150 years.”

Investigators have known for the last 15 years that part of cell division is controlled by epigenetic processes, the series of actions that affect the protein spools around which DNA is tightly bound, rather than encoded in the DNA sequence itself. Those spools are built of histone proteins, and chemical changes to these spool proteins can either loosen or tighten their interaction with DNA. Epigenetics alter the readout of the genetic code, in some cases ramping a gene’s expression up or down. In the case of the centromere, it marks the site where spindle fibers attach independently of the underlying DNA sequence. CENP-A has been suspected to be the key epigenetic marker protein.

However, what hasn’t been known is how CENP-A epigenetically marks the centromere to direct inheritance. The Black team found the structural features that confer CENP-A the ability to mark centromere location on each chromosome. This is important because without CENP-A or the centromere mark it creates, the entire chromosome — and all of the genes it houses — are lost at cell division.

In this study, Black solved CENP-A’s structure to determine how it specifically marks the centromere on each chromosome and surmise from that how the epigenetic mark is copied correctly in each cell division. They found that CENP-A changes the shape of the nucleosome of which it’s a part, also making it more rigid than other nucleosomes without CENP-A. The nucleosome is the combination of DNA wound around a histone protein core –the DNA thread wrapped around the histone spool. The CENP-A nucleosome is copied several times to create a unique epigenetic area, different from the rest of the chromosome. CENP-A replaces histone H3 in the nucleosomes located at the centromere.

This CENP-A centromere identifier attracts other proteins, and in cell division builds a massive structure, the kinetochore, for pulling the duplicated chromosomes apart during cell division.

Besides the major advance in the understanding of the molecules driving human inheritance, this work also brings about the exciting prospect that the key epigenetic components are now in hand to engineer clinically useful artificial chromosomes that will be inherited alongside our own natural chromosomes — and with the same high fidelity, says Black.

Co-authors are graduate student Emily A. Bassett and research specialist Danielle J. Rogers. The work was funded by National Institute for General Medical Sciences, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Rita Allen Foundation, the American Cancer Society, and the American Heart Association.

Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $3.6 billion enterprise.

Penn’s School of Medicine is currently ranked #2 in U.S. News & World Report’s survey of research-oriented medical schools, and is consistently among the nation’s top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $367.2 million awarded in the 2008 fiscal year.

Penn Medicine’s patient care facilities include:

The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania — the nation’s first teaching hospital, recognized as one of the nation’s top 10 hospitals by U.S. News & World Report.

Penn Presbyterian Medical Center — named one of the top 100 hospitals for cardiovascular care by Thomson Reuters for six years.

Pennsylvania Hospital — the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751, nationally recognized for excellence in orthopaedics, obstetrics & gynecology, and behavioral health.

Additional patient care facilities and services include Penn Medicine at Rittenhouse, a Philadelphia campus offering inpatient rehabilitation and outpatient care in many specialties; as well as a primary care provider network; a faculty practice plan; home care and hospice services; and several multispecialty outpatient facilities across the Philadelphia region.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2009, Penn Medicine provided $733.5 million to benefit our community.

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