The three dimensional (3D) structure of chromatin fibers in sections of nuclei has been determined using electron tomography. Low temperature embedding and nucleic acid-specific staining allowed individual nucleosomes to be clearly seen, and the tomographic data collection parameters provided a reconstruction resolution of 2.5 nm. Chromatin fibers have complex 3D trajectories, with smoothly bending regions interspersed with abrupt changes in direction, and U turns. Nucleosomes are located predominantly at the fiber periphery, and linker DNA tends to project toward the fiber interior. Within the fibers, a unifying structural motif is a two nucleosome-wide ribbon that is variably bent and twisted, and in which there is little face-to-face contact between nucleosomes. It is suggested that this asymmetric 3D zig-zag of nucleosomes and linker DNA represents a basic principle of chromatin folding that is determined by the properties of the nucleosome-linker unit. This concept of chromatin fiber architecture is contrasted with helical models in which specific nucleosome-nucleosome contacts play a major role in generating a symmetrical higher order structure. The transcriptional control implications of a more open and irregular chromatin structure are discussed.

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