Functional epialleles at an endogenous human centromere.


Human centromeres are defined by megabases of homogenous alpha-satellite DNA arrays that are packaged into specialized chromatin marked by the centromeric histone variant, centromeric protein A (CENP-A). Although most human chromosomes have a single higher-order repeat (HOR) array of alpha satellites, several chromosomes have more than one HOR array. Homo sapiens chromosome 17 (HSA17) has two juxtaposed HOR arrays, D17Z1 and D17Z1-B. Only D17Z1 has been linked to CENP-A chromatin assembly. Here, we use human artificial chromosome assembly assays to show that both D17Z1 and D17Z1-B can support de novo centromere assembly independently. We extend these in vitro studies and demonstrate, using immunostaining and chromatin analyses, that in human cells the centromere can be assembled at D17Z1 or D17Z1-B. Intriguingly, some humans are functional heterozygotes, meaning that CENP-A is located at a different HOR array on the two HSA17 homologs. The site of CENP-A assembly on HSA17 is stable and is transmitted through meiosis, as evidenced by inheritance of CENP-A location through multigenerational families. Differences in histone modifications are not linked clearly with active and inactive D17Z1 and D17Z1-B arrays; however, we detect a correlation between the presence of variant repeat units of D17Z1 and CENP-A assembly at the opposite array, D17Z1-B. Our studies reveal the presence of centromeric epialleles on an endogenous human chromosome and suggest genomic complexities underlying the mechanisms that determine centromere identity in humans.





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Publication Info

Maloney, Kristin A, Lori L Sullivan, Justyne E Matheny, Erin D Strome, Stephanie L Merrett, Alyssa Ferris and Beth A Sullivan (2012). Functional epialleles at an endogenous human centromere. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 109(34). pp. 13704–13709. 10.1073/pnas.1203126109 Retrieved from

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Beth Ann Sullivan

James B. Duke Distinguished Professor

Research in the Sullivan Lab is focused on chromosome organization, with a specific emphasis on the genomics and epigenetics of the chromosomal locus called the centromere. The centromere is a specialized chromosomal site involved in chromosome architecture and movement, and when defective, is linked to cancer, birth defects, and infertility. The lab has described a unique type of chromatin (CEN chromatin) that forms exclusively at the centromere by replacement of core histone H3 by the centromeric histone variant CENP-A. Their studies also explore the composition of CEN chromatin and its relationship to the underlying highly repetitive alpha satellite DNA at the centromere. The Sullivan lab also discovered that genomic variation within alpha satellite DNA affects where the centromere is built and how well it functions. The Sullivan lab was part of the Telomere-to-Telomere T2T Consortium that used ultra long read sequencing and optical mapping to completely assemble each human chromosome, including through millions of basepairs of alpha satellite DNA at each centromere. Dr. Sullivan's group also builds human artificial chromosomes (HACs), using them as tools to test components required for a viable, transmissible chromosome and to study centromeric transcription and chromosome stability. The lab also studies formation and fate of chromosome abnormalities associated with birth defects, reproductive abnormalities, and cancer. Specifically, they study chromosomal abnormalities with two centromeres, called dicentric chromosomes. Originally described by Nobelist Barbara McClintock in the 1930s, dicentrics in most organisms are considered inherently unstable chromosomes because they trigger genome instability. However, dicentric chromosomes in humans are very stable and are often transmitted through multiple generations of a family. Using several approaches to experimentally reproduce dicentric chromosomes in human cells, the lab explores mechanisms of dicentric formation and their long-term fate.

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