DNA Packaging in Cells


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Illustration shows a eukaryotic cell, which has a membrane-bound nucleus containing chromatin and a nucleolus, and a prokaryotic cell, which has DNA contained in an area of the cytoplasm called the nucleoid. The prokaryotic cell is much smaller than the eukaryotic cell.
A eukaryote contains a well-defined nucleus, whereas in prokaryotes, the chromosome lies in the cytoplasm in an area called the nucleoid. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

Prokaryotes are much simpler than eukaryotes in many of their features. Most prokaryotes contain a single, circular chromosome that is found in an area of the cytoplasm called the nucleoid region.

The size of the genome in one of the most well-studied prokaryotes, E.coli, is 4.6 million base pairs (approximately 1.1 mm, if cut and stretched out). So how does this fit inside a small bacterial cell? The DNA is twisted by what is known as supercoiling. Supercoiling suggests that DNA is either “under-wound” (less than one turn of the helix per 10 base pairs) or “over-wound” (more than 1 turn per 10 base pairs) from its normal relaxed state. Some proteins are known to be involved in the supercoiling; other proteins and enzymes such as DNA gyrase help in maintaining the supercoiled structure.

Eukaryotes, whose chromosomes each consist of a linear DNA molecule, employ a different type of packing strategy to fit their DNA inside the nucleus. At the most basic level, DNA is wrapped around proteins known as histones to form structures called nucleosomes. The histones are evolutionarily conserved proteins that are rich in basic amino acids and form an octamer composed of two molecules of each of four different histones. The DNA (remember, it is negatively charged because of the phosphate groups) is wrapped tightly around the histone core. This nucleosome is linked to the next one with the help of a linker DNA. This is also known as the “beads on a string” structure. With the help of a fifth histone, a string of nucleosomes is further compacted into a 30-nm fiber, which is the diameter of the structure. Metaphase chromosomes are even further condensed by association with scaffolding proteins. At the metaphase stage, the chromosomes are at their most compact, approximately 700 nm in width.

In interphase, eukaryotic chromosomes have two distinct regions that can be distinguished by staining. The tightly packaged region is known as heterochromatin, and the less dense region is known as euchromatin. Heterochromatin usually contains genes that are not expressed, and is found in the regions of the centromere and telomeres. The euchromatin usually contains genes that are transcribed, with DNA packaged around nucleosomes but not further compacted.

Illustration shows the levels of organization of eukaryotic chromosomes, starting with the D N A double helix, which wraps around histone proteins. The entire D N A molecule wraps around many clusters of histone proteins, forming a structure that looks like beads on a string, which are nucleosomes coiled into a chromatin fiber. The chromatin is further condensed by wrapping around a protein core. The result is a compact chromosome, shown in duplicated form, which is the shape of an x.
These figures illustrate the compaction of the eukaryotic chromosome. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

Source:

Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e

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