We have examined the chromatin structure of centromere regions from the fission yeast Schizosaccharomyces pombe. The large and complex centromere regions of the S. pombe chromosomes encompass many kilobase pairs of DNA and contain several classes of tandemly repeated DNA sequences. The repeated sequences are further organized into a large inverted repeat flanking a central core, a conserved structural feature among all three centromeres in S. pombe. The nucleosomal configuration of the centromere regions is nonuniform and highly varied. Most of the centromere-specific repeated DNA sequences are packaged into nucleosomes typical of bulk chromatin. However, the central core and core-associated repeated sequences from the centromere regions of chromosomes I (cen1) and II (cen2), when present in S. pombe, show an altered chromatin structure, with little or no evidence of regular nucleosomal packaging. The atypical chromatin organization of the cen2 central core is not due to transcription, as no transcripts from this region were detected. These same DNA sequences, however, are packaged into nucleosomes typical of bulk chromatin when present in a nonfunctional environment on a minichromosome in the budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Because the cen2 central core sequences themselves do not preclude regular nucleosomal packaging, we speculate that in S. pombe they constitute a specialized site of kinetochore protein assembly. The atypical nucleosomal pattern of the cen2 central core remains constant during the cell cycle, with only minor differences observed for some sequences. We propose that the unusual chromatin organization of the core region forms the basis of a higher order structural differentiation that distinguishes the centromere from the chromosome arms and specifies the essential structure for centromere function.

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