6.1.2 Packaging of DNA Helix

Taken the distance between two consecutive base pairs as 0.34 nm (0.34×10–9 m), if the length of DNA double helix in a typical mammalian cell is calculated (simply by multiplying the total number of bp with distance between two consecutive bp, that is, 6.6 × 109 bp × 0.34 × 10-9m/bp), it comes out to be approximately 2.2 metres. A length that is far greater than the dimension of a typical nucleus (approximately 10–6 m).

How is such a long polymer packaged in a cell? If the length of E. coli DNA is 1.36 mm, can you calculate the number of base pairs in E.coli? In prokaryotes, such as, E. coli, though they do not have a defined nucleus, the DNA is not scattered throughout the cell. DNA (being negatively charged) is held with some proteins (that have positive charges) in a region termed as ‘nucleoid’.

The DNA in nucleoid is organised in large loops held by proteins. In eukaryotes, this organisation is much more complex. There is a set of positively charged, basic proteins called histones. A protein acquires charge depending upon the abundance of amino acids residues with charged side chains. Histones are rich in the basic amino acid residues lysines and arginines.

Both the amino acid residues carry positive charges in their side chains. Histones are organised to form a unit of eight molecules called as histone octamer. The negatively charged DNA is wrapped around the positively charged histone octamer to form a structure called nucleosome. A typical nucleosome contains 200 bp of DNA helix.

Nucleosomes constitute the repeating unit of a structure in nucleus called chromatin, thread-like stained (coloured) bodies seen in nucleus. The nucleosomes in chromatin are seen as ‘beads-on-string’ structure when viewed under electron microscope (EM).

Theoretically, how many such beads (nucleosomes) do you imagine are present in a mammalian cell? The beads-on-string structure in chromatin is packaged to form chromatin fibers that are further coiled and condensed at metaphase stage of cell division to form chromosomes. The packaging of chromatin at higher level requires additional set of proteins that collectively are referred to as Non-histone Chromosomal (NHC) proteins.

In a typical nucleus, some region of chromatin are loosely packed (and stains light) and are referred to as euchromatin. The chromatin that is more densely packed and stains dark are called as Heterochromatin. Euchromatin is said to be transcriptionally active chromatin, whereas heterochromatin is inactive.

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