The diameters of chromatin fibers from Thyone briareus (sea cucumber) sperm (DNA linker length, n = 87 bp) and Necturus maculosus (mudpuppy) erythrocytes (n = 48 bp) were investigated. Soluble fibers were frozen into vitrified aqueous solutions of physiological ionic strength (124 mM), imaged by cryo-EM, and measured interactively using quantitative computer image-processing techniques. Frozen-hydrated Thyone and Necturus fibers had significantly different mean diameters of 43.5 nm (SD = 4.2 nm; SEM = 0.61 nm) and 32.0 nm (SD = 3.0 nm; SEM = 0.36 nm), respectively. Evaluation of previously published EM data shows that the diameters of chromatin from a large number of sources are proportional to linker length. In addition, the inherent variability in fiber diameter suggests a relationship between fiber structure and the heterogeneity of linker length. The cryo-EM data were in quantitative agreement with space-filling double-helical crossed-linker models of Thyone and Necturus chromatin. The data, however, do not support solenoid or twisted-ribbon models for chromatin that specify a constant 30 nm diameter. To reconcile the concept of solenoidal packing with the data, we propose a variable-diameter solid-solenoid model with a fiber diameter that increases with linker length. In principle, each of the variable diameter models for chromatin can be reconciled with local variations in linker length.

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