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Eukaryot Cell. 2010 Jan;9(1):148-54. doi: 10.1128/EC.00282-09. Epub 2009 Nov 13.

Nucleosomes are depleted at the VSG expression site transcribed by RNA polymerase I in African trypanosomes.

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Laboratory of Molecular Parasitology, The Rockefeller University, 1230 York Avenue, New York, NY 10065, USA.


In most eukaryotes, RNA polymerase I (Pol I) exclusively transcribes long arrays of identical rRNA genes (ribosomal DNA [rDNA]). African trypanosomes have the unique property of using Pol I to also transcribe the variant surface glycoprotein VSG genes. VSGs are important virulence factors because their switching allows trypanosomes to escape the host immune system, a mechanism known as antigenic variation. Only one VSG is transcribed at a time from one of 15 bloodstream-form expression sites (BESs). Although it is clear that switching among BESs does not involve DNA rearrangements and that regulation is probably epigenetic, it remains unknown why BESs are transcribed by Pol I and what roles are played by chromatin structure and histone modifications. Using chromatin immunoprecipitation, micrococcal nuclease digestion, and chromatin fractionation, we observed that there are fewer nucleosomes at the active BES and that these are irregularly spaced compared to silent BESs. rDNA coding regions are also depleted of nucleosomes, relative to the rDNA spacer. In contrast, genes transcribed by Pol II are organized in a more compact, regularly spaced, nucleosomal structure. These observations provide new insight on antigenic variation by showing that chromatin remodeling is an intrinsic feature of BES regulation.

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