Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Chromosomes in eukaryotes

Eukaryotes (cells with nuclei such as plants, yeast, and animals) possess multiple large linear chromosomes contained in the cell's nucleus. Each chromosome has one centromere, with one or two arms projecting from the centromere, although under most circumstances these arms are not visible as such. In addition most eukaryotes have a small circular mitochondrial genome, and some eukaryotes may have additional small circular or linear cytoplasmic chromosomes.

In the nuclear chromosomes of eukaryotes, the uncondensed DNA exists in a semi-ordered structure, where it is wrapped around histones (structural proteins), forming a composite material called chromatin.


Fig. 2: The major structures in DNA compaction; DNA, the nucleosome, the 10nm "beads-on-a-string" fibre, the 30nm fibre and the metaphase chromosome.
Fig. 2: The major structures in DNA compaction; DNA, the nucleosome, the 10nm "beads-on-a-string" fibre, the 30nm fibre and the metaphase chromosome.

Chromatin is the complex of DNA and protein found in the eukaryotic nucleus which packages chromosomes. The structure of chromatin varies significantly between different stages of the cell cycle, according to the requirements of the DNA.

Interphase chromatin

During interphase (the period of the cell cycle where the cell is not dividing) two types of chromatin can be distinguished:

  • Euchromatin, which consists of DNA that is active, e.g., expressed as protein.
  • Heterochromatin, which consists of mostly inactive DNA. It seems to serve structural purposes during the chromosomal stages. Heterochromatin can be further distinguished into two types:
    • Constitutive heterochromatin, which is never expressed. It is located around the centromere and usually contains repetitive sequences.
    • Facultative heterochromatin, which is sometimes expressed.

Individual chromosomes cannot be distinguished at this stage - they appear in the nucleus as a homogeneous tangled mix of DNA and protein.

Metaphase chromatin and division

Human chromosomes during metaphase.
Human chromosomes during metaphase.

In the early stages of mitosis or meiosis (cell division), the chromatin strands become more and more condensed. They cease to function as accessible genetic material (transcription stops) and become a compact transportable form. This compact form makes the individual chromosomes visible, and they form the classic four arm structure, a pair of sister chromatids attached to each other at the centromere. The shorter arms are called p arms (from the French petit, small) and the longer arms are called q arms (q follows p in the Latin alphabet). This is the only natural context in which individual chromosomes are visible with an optical microscope.

During divisions long microtubules attach to the centromere and the two opposite ends of the cell. The microtubules then pull the chromatids apart, so that each daughter cell inherits one set of chromatids. Once the cells have divided, the chromatids are uncoiled and can function again as chromatin. In spite of their appearance, chromosomes are structurally highly condensed which enables these giant DNA structures to be contained within a cell nucleus (Fig. 2).

The self assembled microtubules form the spindle, which attaches to chromosomes at specialized structures called kinetochores, one of which is present on each sister chromatid. A special DNA base sequence in the region of the kinetochores provides, along with special proteins, longer-lasting attachment in this region.

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