Pluripotent Stem Cells Actively Regulate The Openness of their Heterochromatin

Packaging DNA into a small area like the nucleus of the cell does not occur unless that DNA is tightly wound into compact structures collectively known as chromatin. However, not all regions of the genome show the same degree of compaction. Highly-expressed regions of the genome tend to be less highly compacted and regions of the genes that are not expressed to any degree tend to be squirreled away into tight chromatin.

Pluripotent stem cells tend to have an open and decondensed chromatin organization. In fact, this open and decondensed chromatin configuration is a defining property of pluripotent cells in general. The connection between pluripotency and the is open chromatin organization and the mediators of this chromatin configuration remain shrouded in uncertainty.

A new study from the laboratory of Peter J Rugg-Gunn at the Babraham Institute, in collaboration with scientists from Canada, the United Kingdom, and Japan, has identified two proteins, Nanog and Sall1 that participate in the chromatin structure of pluripotent stem cells. Such an understanding can contribute to making better pluripotent stem cells.

Cells tend to possess regions of the genome that are tightly wrapped into tight heterochomatin. These genomic regions are usually structural in nature and are, typically, not expressed. These include centromeric DNA and pericentromeric DNA, which plays a role in spindle attachment during cell division. These regions are collectively known as “constitutive heterochromatin.” However, previous research has demonstrated that this constitutive heterchromatin is maintained in an open and uncompacted conformation.

Clara Lopes Novo, in Rugg-Gunn’s laboratory and her colleagues discovered that transcription factor NANOG acts as an integral regulator of the conformation of constitutive heterochromatin in mouse embryonic stem cells. When Lopes Novo and others deleted the Nanog genes in mouse embryonic stem cells, the constitutive heterochromatin was remodeled in a manner that led to more intensive chromatin compaction. However, when Lopes Novo and her coworkers forced the expression of the Nanog gene in mouse embryonic stem cells, leading to spikes in the levels of NANOG proteim, the heterochromatin domains showed distinct decompaction.

When Lopes Novo and others determined where NANOG spent its time, they discovered that it was bound to heterochromatin. In particular, NANOG associated with satellite repeats within heterochromatin domains. Heterochromatin that was associated with NANOG had highly dispersed chromatin fibers, low levels of modified histone proteins that are usually associated with chromatin compaction (i.e. H3K9me3), and high levels of transcription.

The second heterochromatin-associated protein, SALL1, seems to work in cahoots with NANOG. In fact, when Lopes Novo and others deleted the Sall1 gene from mouse embryonic stem cells, the Sall1-/- cells recapitulate the Nanog -/- phenotype. However, further work showed that the loss of Sall1 can be rescued by forcing the recruitment of the NANOG to major portions of the heterochromatin (by over-expressing the NANOG protein).

These results demonstrate the connection between pluripotency and chromatin organization. This work seems to say, “embryonic stem cells actively maintain an open heterochromatin architecture.” They do this to stabilize their pluritotency.

Loss of heterochromatin regulation has potential consequences for the long-term genetic stability of stem cells, and the ability of stem cells, and the ability of stem cells to differentiate and mature into specialized cell types.

This work was published in the journal Genes and Development (


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).