New & Noteworthy

Ghosts of Centromeres Past

January 28, 2013

Every cell needs to correctly divvy up its chromosomes when it divides.  Otherwise one cell would end up with too many chromosomes, the other with too few and they’d both probably die.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

A different kind of ghost may be embedded in the yeast genome.

Cells have developed elaborate machinery to make sure each daughter gets the right chromosomes.  One key part of the machinery is the centromere.  This is the part of the chromosome that attaches to the mitotic spindle so the chromosome gets dragged to the right place. 

Given how precise this dance is, it is surprising how sloppy the underlying centromeric DNA tends to be in most eukaryotes.  It is very long with lots of repeated sequences which make it very tricky to figure out which DNA sequences really matter.  An exception to this is the centromeres found in some budding yeasts like Saccharomyces cerevisiae.  These centromeres are around 125 base pairs long with easily identifiable important DNA sequences.

The current thought is that budding yeast used to have the usual diffuse, regional centromeres but that over time, they evolved these newer, more compact centromeres.  Work in a new study published in PLOS Genetics by Lefrançois and coworkers lends support to this idea.

These authors found that when they overexpressed a key centromeric protein, Cse4p (or CenH3 in humans), new centromere complexes formed on DNA sequences near the true centromeres. The authors termed these sequences CLR’s or Centromere-Like Regions.  And they showed that these complexes are functional.

When Lefrançois and coworkers kept the true centromere from functioning on chromosome 3 in cells overexpressing Cse4p, 82% of the cells were able to properly segregate chromosome 3.  This compares to the 62% of cells that pull this off with normal levels of Cse4p.  The advantage disappeared when the CLR on chromosome 3 was deleted.

A close look at the CLRs showed that they had a lot in common with both types of centromeres.  They had an AT-rich 90 base pair sequence that looked an awful lot like the kind of sequence that Cse4p prefers to bind and a lot like the repeats found within more traditional centromeres.  They also tended to be in areas of open chromatin and close to true centromeres. The obvious conclusion is that these are remnants of the regional centromeres budding yeast used to have. 

The hope is that the yeast CLRs might make studying regional centromeres easier.  They are so long and complicated that it is very difficult to pick out which sequences matter and which don’t, but the yeast CLRs could be a simpler model system.  Even better, the CLRs might shed some light on the process of neocentromerization – the formation of new centromeres outside of centromeric regions, which happens a lot in cancer cells. Once again, simple little S. cerevisiae may hold the key to understanding what’s going on in much larger organisms.

by D. Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics