What are Nucleosomes?

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  • Written By: Angela Brady
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2019
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Nucleosomes are the particles in DNA that are responsible for compaction and transcription, and may also carry hereditary information. Each nucleosome is approximately 10 nm in diameter, and consists of strands of DNA wrapped in a spiral fashion around a core of simple protein called histone. Nucleosomes are located in the nucleus of a cell, and when attached to DNA, form one of the seven forms of chromatin.

When nucleosomes attach to strands of DNA as repeating subunits, the structure resembles a “string of beads.” While in this form, DNA is undergoing active transcription, the process through which DNA is converted into RNA. DNA is not converted directly into proteins in order to avoid mistakes and contamination.

The structure of the nucleosome is centered around the histone protein. Histone is a simple protein with high concentrations of amino acids, which are the basic building blocks of genes. Each histone core contains pairs of each of the four types of histone proteins, which forms the histone octomer. Around the histone octomer wrap 146 base pairs of DNA in its superhelical form, together forming the nucleosome.


Nucleosomes are the “packaging” of the DNA in a cell’s nucleus, and the signature structure is what determines the DNA’s accessibility. Chemicals responsible for transcription cannot connect to the chromatin if a nucleosome is in the way, so the transcription proteins must first completely expel the nucleosome or slide it along the DNA molecule until the chromatin is exposed. Once that portion of DNA is transcribed into RNA, the nucleosomes are allowed to return to their original location.

If stretched out into a straight line, the DNA in each mammalian nucleus would measure approximately two meters long, but the nucleus of a mammalian cell is a mere 10 micrometers in diameter. It is the complex folding action of the nucleosomes that allow the DNA to fit in the nucleus. The “beads-on-a-string” appearance comes from “linker” DNA that connects each nucleosome to form a fiber about 10 nm in diameter. In the presence of the H1 histone, repeating chains of nucleosomes can form chains 30 nm in diameter, with a much denser packing ratio. The presence of H1 in the core of the nucleosome results in a higher packing efficiency, as neighboring proteins react to initiate folding and looping sequences that allow so much information to be contained in such a tiny package. Even today, the exact packing mechanism initiated by nucleosomes is not fully understood.


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Post 3

@pleonasm - You're right, chromosomes are made up of nucleosomes, and they are folded very small. But it's hard to imagine how very small they are folded, and that's the thing I always marvel at.

You can look up picture guidelines of it online and they usually have about eight different pictures, showing the process at different magnifications.

So the squiggly lines are really made up from nucleosomes in that "beads on a string" configuration, and even at that point, the nucleosomes have been folded up quite a bit (not to mention the DNA which makes up the nucleosomes.)

Really, you have to see a diagram at least to try and grasp it.

Post 2

Nucleosomes are what chromosomes are made up from. When you look at a picture of a chromosome and it seems to be made up of a squiggly line, that line is the nucleosomes, which are folded in on themselves in a very complex pattern, which, as the article says, is not completely understood yet, although they are getting better at figuring it out.

When we learned about chromosomes at school, what really stuck in my mind is what happens if you don't get the right amount for an average person.

All kinds of disorders or diseases can occur. The most famous is Down syndrome.

I hate to say it, but afterwards I was always on the lookout for the signs that someone had a chromosomal disorder.

Post 1

I remember reading about how the guys who discovered the shape of DNA researched and studied it for a long time before they realized what it had to look like. Because there was no way they could actually take a look at DNA. They could only figure out what it was made up from, by breaking it apart and testing the different components.

But, how they all fit together didn't seem logical.

Then James Watson, one of the researchers working on finding the structure, dreamed of a couple of snakes, entwined around each other in a double helix. He woke up and realized that was the shape, and it fit so well, everyone realized that had to be it, without even experimenting to make sure.

I guess the answer was lurking in the back of his mind and his unconscious got impatient in the end and thumped him over the head with it.

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