• December 7, 2021

The Secret Role Histones Played in Complex Cell Evolution

As a first step toward those answers, Sandman joined forces several years ago with the structural biologist Karolin Luger, who solved the structure of the eukaryotic nucleosome in 1997. Together, they worked out the crystallized structure of the archaeal nucleosome, which they published with colleagues in 2017. They found that the archaeal nucleosomes are “uncannily similar” in structure to eukaryotic nucleosomes, Luger said—despite the marked differences in their peptide sequences.

Archaeal nucleosomes had already “figured out how to bind and bend DNA in this beautiful arc,” said Luger, now a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder. But the difference between the eukaryotic and archaeal nucleosomes is that the crystal structure of the archaeal nucleosome seemed to form looser, Slinky-like assemblies of varying sizes.

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In a paper in eLife published in March, Luger, her postdoc Samuel Bowerman, and Jeff Wereszczynski of the Illinois Institute of Technology followed up on the 2017 paper. They used cryo-electron microscopy to solve the structure of the archaeal nucleosome in a state more representative of a live cell. Their observations confirmed that the structures of archaeal nucleosomes are less fixed. Eukaryotic nucleosomes are always stably wrapped by about 147 base pairs of DNA, and always consist of just eight histones. (For eukaryotic nucleosomes, “the buck stops at eight,” Luger said.) Their equivalents in archaea wind up between 60 and 600 base pairs. These “archaeasomes” sometimes hold as few as three histone dimers, but the largest ones consist of as many as 15 dimers.

Karolin Luger, a structural biologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, identified the structure of eukaryotic nucleosomes. She has brought that same expertise more recently to studies of archaeal nucleosomes.Photograph: ANGELA BRANSON

They also found that unlike the tight eukaryotic nucleosomes, the Slinky-like archaeasomes flop open stochastically, like clamshells. The researchers suggested that this arrangement simplifies gene expression for the archaea, because unlike eukaryotes, they don’t need any energetically expensive supplemental proteins to help unwind DNA from the histones to make them available for transcription.

That’s why Tobias Warnecke, who studies archaeal histones at Imperial College London, thinks that “there’s something special that must have happened at the dawn of eukaryotes, where we transition from just having simple histones … to having octameric nucleosomes. And they seem to be doing something qualitatively different.”

What that is, however, is still a mystery. In archaeal species, there are “quite a few that have histones, and there are other species that don’t have histones. And even those that do have histones vary quite a lot,” Warnecke said. Last December, he published a paper showing that there are diverse variants of histone proteins with different functions. The histone-DNA complexes vary in their stability and affinity for DNA. But they are not as stably or regularly organized as eukaryotic nucleosomes.

As puzzling as the diversity of archaeal histones is, it provides an opportunity to understand the different possible ways of building systems of gene expression. That’s something we cannot glean from the relative “boringness” of eukaryotes, Warnecke says: Through understanding the combinatorics of archaeal systems, “we can also figure out what’s special about eukaryotic systems.” The variety of different histone types and configurations in archaea may also help us deduce what they might have been doing before their role in gene regulation solidified.

A Protective Role for Histones

Because archaea are relatively simple prokaryotes with small genomes, “I don’t think that the original role of histones was to control gene expression, or at least not in a manner that we are used to from eukaryotes,” Warnecke said. Instead, he hypothesizes that histones might have protected the genome from damage.

Archaea often live in extreme environments, like hot springs and volcanic vents on the seafloor, characterized by high temperatures, high pressures, high salinity, high acidity or other threats. Stabilizing their DNA with histones may make it harder for the DNA strands to melt in those extreme conditions. Histones also might protect archaea against invaders, such as phages or transposable elements, which would find it harder to integrate into the genome when it’s wrapped around the proteins.

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