New & Noteworthy

Trouble with Triplets

April 06, 2018

This Research Spotlight also comes as a video animation. Be sure to check it out!

In the Star Wars movie Attack of the Clones, Padme and Anakin end up fighting Genosians on an automated assembly line. Padme manages to survive because the assembly line is set up in an ordered and predictable way. She knows when to jump, when to pause and so on to survive. If there was more chaos in the line, she might have been killed and then there’d be no Luke or Leia!

If the Genosian assembly line weren’t predictable, Padme might’ve ended up a pancake.

The same kind of thing can happen when cells read genes. An enzyme called RNA Polymerase II (Pol II) slides along the gene, spewing out a long string of messenger RNA behind it.

Just like the assembly line on Genosis, the gene is set up in an ordered and predictable way. Nucleosomes (barrel-shaped clusters of proteins) are spaced along the gene’s DNA to help keep it from getting tangled up. But when Pol II comes hustling along, the nucleosomes need to be carefully removed in front and then replaced after it passes.

Similar to the plight of poor Padme getting hurt if the assembly line were not predictable, genes can likewise get damaged if the nucleosome removal/replacement process goes haywire. In Star Wars, the result of a defective assembly line is damaged droids and TIE fighters. In cells, the result is a changed assembly line—the gene can end up longer! This change can be harmful for both the gene and the cell.

In a new study in GENETICS, Koch and coworkers use our favorite beast, the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, to show that the ISW1 gene is a key player in making sure that the nucleosomes get back on DNA after being taken off. When yeast lack the ISW1 gene, nucleosomes don’t always return after being removed to make way for Pol II. And for some genes, this spells even more trouble.


“CAG” starts to spell “trouble” if genes get too many of them. from Wikimedia Commons.

The genes that have the most problems are those that have something called triplet repeats. Basically, this means the same 3 bases (e.g. CAG) are repeated many times in a row in the gene.

Using PCR, Koch and coworkers showed that a gene with triplet repeats ended up with more of them if the ISW1 protein (Isw1p) wasn’t there to shepherd the nucleosomes properly. And too many repeats in a gene can be harmful–not just to the yeast, but to us as well.

In fact, Triplet Repeat Expansion Disorders happen when the number of repeats increases from one generation to the next.  These diseases are some of the most devastating ones around.


Woody Guthrie succumbed to a triplet repeat disorder, Huntington’s Disease. from Wikipedia.

They mostly cause slow but steady degeneration of nerve and brain cells, and the cruel symptoms (loss of body movement control, dementia) often only show up in mid-life. The most well-known is probably Huntington’s disease, which killed folk-singer Woody Guthrie.

So understanding how Isw1p helps keep the Pol II assembly line running smoothly in yeast might help us understand how triplet repeat expansion happens in humans, and may eventually give us ideas how to keep it from happening in the first place. This is especially likely because humans have proteins that are similar to Isw1p and probably do something similar.

To determine how Isw1p regulates nucleosome reassembly, Koch and coworkers used Southern blots to show that yeast that lacked Isw1p couldn’t replace their nucleosomes after Pol II had passed as efficiently as yeast that had the protein. This means that when cells are missing the ISW1 gene, a long stretch of the DNA is left bare after Pol II has passed by.

This stretch of nucleosome-free DNA can end up forming new structures called hairpins that can cause cells to send in DNA repair machinery to deal with it. Unfortunately this machinery isn’t always that great at fixing the DNA. Like the Three Stooges adding more pipe to try to fix a leak, the cell can end up adding more DNA to deal with the hairpin.

Like adding extra DNA, throwing extra pipes at a plumbing leak is a great way to make a bad problem worse.

But for the cell, the results are not as hilarious as they were for Moe, Larry, and Curly. That extra DNA can lead to deadly genetic diseases.

A yeast cell needs Isw1p to keep the cell from bringing in the Three Stooges to mess up its DNA and potentially cause devastating genetic diseases. If it turns out the same is true in people, then once again yeast will have shown us how human genetic diseases might happen. And perhaps provide a target for us to go after to prevent these diseases from happening. #APOYG!

by Barry Starr, Ph.D., Barbara Dunn, Ph.D., and Kevin MacPherson, M.S.

Categories: Research Spotlight

Tags: DNA repair , ISW1 , RNA polymerase II , nucleosome , chromatin remodeling

Cheerio Containment

September 11, 2017

In the store the other day I saw a kid in a stroller covered in Cheerios, an opened, near empty Ziploc-type plastic bag next to him. It looked like one of those cheap, knock off brands that are much harder to close properly.


Just like a poorly closed zipper means more spilled Cheerios, a looser H1 clamp means more transcripts. Image from

Other than keeping the Cheerios out of reach, his parents had two options here. The first was to use two bags, putting the cheaper re-sealable bag into another one. The odds are much better that at least one of them would be closed properly.

The second option was to get a re-sealable bag with a better zipper, like an actual Ziploc. With a better baggie, the parents had a much better chance of making sure that the bag was sealed.

In a new study out in GENETICS, Lawrence and coworkers show that yeast cells go for the second approach when it comes to the histone H1 and gene expression regulation. Rather than regulating gene expression by controlling the number of molecules of H1 in a cell, the yeast instead regulates transcription by controlling how well H1 can bind DNA. And it looks like the strength of binding is influenced by the acetylation of H1’s more famous histone cousins—the histones found in the nucleosome.

Almost everyone has heard of the histones that make up the nucleosome, that structure of DNA wrapped around a core of eight histone proteins. H1 is a bit less famous. It binds the linker DNA, or the DNA between some of the nucleosomes.

When bound, H1 tends to repress nearby genes. It acts like a clamp that keeps the nucleosome in place.

This gene repression is probably why our friend Saccharomyces cerevisiae has only one H1 per 4-37 nucleosomes as compared to the one H1 per nucleosome in vertebrates. After all, S. cerevisiae’s genome has a much higher gene density. If it had one H1 for every nucleosome it might not have any genes turned on!

You may have noticed that scientists don’t have a good handle on an exact number of H1 molecules in a yeast cell. One of the first things these authors did was a careful study to try to nail down just what that number is. They came up with 18.9 +/- 1 nucleosomes/H1.

The next step was to figure out how a yeast cell controls H1 to regulate gene expression. There are two general ideas about how a cell might go about this.

In the first, the cell controls the amount of H1 it makes. The more H1, the more genes get repressed.

In the second, H1 is controlled by the acetylation of the core histone proteins. The acetylation loosens the core histone’s grip on the DNA making it harder for H1 to bind.

It would be very hard to do experiments in most beasts to try to tell which model is correct. For example, mammals have 11 genes for H1 proteins. This makes changing the overall amount of H1 nontrivial to say the least.

This is where the ultimate model organism, S. cerevisiae, can come in and save the day yet again (#APOYG). Since this yeast has only one H1 gene, HHO1, it is much simpler to tweak the amount of H1 protein in a cell.

Lawrence and coworkers put HHO1 under the control of the GAL promoter and found that in the presence of galactose, the extra H1 had a severe effect on growth. These yeast were unhappy with around three times as much H1 protein, even though there was not much of an effect on chromosomal structure as measured by micrococcal nuclease assays.


Low acetylation on this Ziploc. Image from General Mills.

The researchers next looked for genes which when deleted, rescued the growth defect of yeast making too much H1. They did this by transforming their GAL-HHO1 plasmid into the collection of ~4700 nonessential gene knockout strains.

Histone deacetylases (HDACs) were the most interesting class of genes they found that could rescue the growth defect. By deleting an HDAC gene, histone acetylation increases (because the deacetylation decreases), implying that H1 can be regulated by the acetylation status of histones. The loss of the HDAC increased the amount of acetylation, which made it harder for H1 to bind, and so repress transcription.

They confirmed this finding in a couple of ways with the most interesting one using a couple of different mutants of histone H3. One mutant had its acetylation sites in the H3 tail changed to glutamines, which mimics a histone in a perpetual state of acetylation. This mimic of an acetylated H3 tail partially rescued the growth defect of too much H1.

So it looks like the effect of H1 can be regulated by the acetylation status of its more famous histone kin. More acetylation results in a looser grip, which makes for more transcription. Like a cheap plastic baggie with a zipper with a looser grip making Cheerios more likely to spill, H1’s looser grip due to more acetylation results in more transcription and more transcripts being let loose into the cell.

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

Categories: Research Spotlight

Tags: HHO1 , nucleosome , H1 , histones , gene regulation