Frequent fliers, take note. Scientists have figured out how cells quickly pack long chromosomes into compact, organized bundles — a key step before cells divide. The new finding unifies two competing ideas about the process: whether it involves winding chromosomes into a spiral staircase or into a set of loops. It turns out cells use two different ring-shaped proteins called condensins to do both actions, imaging and computer simulations reveal.
Normally, chromosomes sit unspooled in a cell’s nucleus. But when a cell prepares to undergo mitosis — a type of cell division — those strings of DNA must condense into easy-to-transfer cylinders. It’s a formidable task: A cell must cram about two meters of DNA into microscopic packages without tangling the genetic material like a string of holiday lights.
Condensin II shapes a chromosome into large loops and then forms a helical scaffold for the loops to wind around. Condensin I subdivides large loops into smaller nested loops that allow for more space-efficient packing.
Together, the two proteins deftly stuff the chromosome into a densely packed cylinder, scientists report online January 18 in Science. Most of that condensing process happens in about 15 minutes, says study coauthor Job Dekker, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.
Time-lapse microscope images show the packing of chromosomes in a chicken cell’s nucleus into tiny capsules. Only minor changes happen after the first 15 minutes.