Although all cells in an organism contain the same genes, only some of the genes are activated in a given cells and others remain inactive. Genes coil around histone proteins in the form of DNA threads. If a gene has to remain inactive, its histones are marked by the PRC2 enzyme so that this gene is locked down and cannot be read. When cells divide and the genes are copied, these histone marks must be placed again, at exactly the same location. The mechanism that enables transmission of this information has now been explained by Jürg Müller from the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried in a study published in the journal Science.
In animals and plants, the genomic DNA in the cell nucleus is wrapped around small proteins known as histones. Jürg Müller, Leader of the Biology of Chromatin Research Group at the MPI of Biochemistry explains: “The DNA is like a big library of books. Each book contains the instruction manual for making a protein. Although the same DNA library is present in all cells, some of the books are ‘sealed’, so they cannot be read. A muscle cell requires other protein-building instructions than an intestinal cell.” An essential mechanism to prevent the expression of genes relies on the chemical marking of histone proteins to permanently “lock down” genes. In the current study, Müller and his team examined how such gene locks are transmitted during cell division. Histones play a key role in determining how accessible a gene is. When genes need to be permanently locked down, their histones are chemically modified by the enzyme PRC2. “If we imagine the histones as the binder of the book, PRC2 helps to seal that book and prevent that it gets opened and read,” explains Müller.