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Margaret Mead
Research Article

A Computational Model for Histone Mark Propagation Reproduces the Distribution of Heterochromatin in Different Human Cell Types


Chromatin is a highly compact and dynamic nuclear structure that consists of DNA and associated proteins. The main organizational unit is the nucleosome, which consists of a histone octamer with DNA wrapped around it. Histone proteins are implicated in the regulation of eukaryote genes and they carry numerous reversible post-translational modifications that control DNA-protein interactions and the recruitment of chromatin binding proteins. Heterochromatin, the transcriptionally inactive part of the genome, is densely packed and contains histone H3 that is methylated at Lys 9 (H3K9me). The propagation of H3K9me in nucleosomes along the DNA in chromatin is antagonizing by methylation of H3 Lysine 4 (H3K4me) and acetylations of several lysines, which is related to euchromatin and active genes. We show that the related histone modifications form antagonized domains on a coarse scale. These histone marks are assumed to be initiated within distinct nucleation sites in the DNA and to propagate bi-directionally. We propose a simple computer model that simulates the distribution of heterochromatin in human chromosomes. The simulations are in agreement with previously reported experimental observations from two different human cell lines. We reproduced different types of barriers between heterochromatin and euchromatin providing a unified model for their function. The effect of changes in the nucleation site distribution and of propagation rates were studied. The former occurs mainly with the aim of (de-)activation of single genes or gene groups and the latter has the power of controlling the transcriptional programs of entire chromosomes. Generally, the regulatory program of gene transcription is controlled by the distribution of nucleation sites along the DNA string.