Human cells somehow squeeze two meters of double-stranded DNA into the space of a typical chromosome, a package 10,000 times smaller than the volume of genetic material it contains.
"It is like compacting your entire wardrobe into a shoebox," said Riccardo Levi-Setti, Professor Emeritus in Physics at the University of Chicago.
Now research into single-celled, aquatic algae called dinoflagellates is showing that these and related organisms may have evolved more than one way to achieve this feat of genetic packing. Even so, the evolution of chromosomes in dinoflagellates, humans and other mammals seem to share a common biochemical basis, according to a team Levi-Setti led. The team's findings appear online, in Science Direct's list of papers in press (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ejcb.2008.06.002) in the European Journal of Cell Biology.
Packing the whole length of DNA into tiny chromosomes is problematic because DNA carries a negative charge that, unless neutralized, prevents any attempt at folding and coiling due to electrostatic repulsion. The larger the quantity of DNA, the more negative charge must be neutralized along its length.
"Dinoflagellates have much more nuclear DNA than humans," said Texas A&M biologist Peter Rizzo, who collaborated on the research with Levi-Setti and Konstantin Gavrilov, a Visiting Research Scientist in the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago.
Every bit of DNA must be properly duplicated and divided to facilitate reproduction and growth. In humans and mammals, proteins called histones partially neutralize the DNA's negative charge. When histones wrap themselves in DNA, they become nucleosomes.
Dinoflagellates are stuffed at the core with tightly compacted chromosomes, yet these organisms contain neither histones nor nucleosomes. "What takes care of neutralizing DNA, to allow chromosomes to con
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