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Annu Rev Immunol. 2002;20:427-62. Epub 2001 Oct 4.

Chromatin structure and gene regulation in the immune system.

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Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics, University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095-1662, USA.


The development of the immune system and the host response to microbial infection rely on the activation and silencing of numerous, differentially expressed genes. Since the mid-1980s, a primary goal has been to identify transcription factors that regulate specific genes and specific immunological processes. More recently, there has been a growing appreciation of the role of chromatin structure in gene regulation. Before most activators of a gene access their binding sites, a transition from a condensed to a decondensed chromatin structure appears to take place. The activation of transcription is then accompanied by the remodeling of specific nucleosomes. Conversely, the acquisition of a more condensed chromatin structure is often associated with gene silencing. Chromatin structure is a particularly significant contributor to gene regulation because it is likely to be a major determinant of cell identity and cell memory. That is, the propagation of decondensed chromatin at specific loci through DNA replication and cell division helps a cell remember which genes are expressed constitutively in that cell type or are poised for expression upon exposure to a stimulus. Here we review recent progress toward understanding the role of chromatin in the immune system. The interleukin-4 gene serves as a primary model for exploring the events involved in the acquisition and heritable maintenance of a decondensed chromatin structure. Studies of the interleukin-12 p40 and interferon-beta genes are then reviewed for insight into the mechanisms by which the remodeling of specific nucleosomes in the vicinity of a promoter can contribute to rapid activation following cell stimulation. Finally, basic principles of gene silencing are discussed.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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