The C. elegans dosage compensation complex mediates interphase X chromosome compaction
© Lau et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2014
Received: 18 July 2014
Accepted: 6 October 2014
Published: 27 October 2014
Dosage compensation is a specialized gene regulatory mechanism which equalizes X-linked gene expression between sexes. In Caenorhabditis elegans, dosage compensation is achieved by the activity of the dosage compensation complex (DCC). The DCC localizes to both X chromosomes in hermaphrodites to downregulate gene expression by half. The DCC contains a subcomplex (condensin IDC) similar to the evolutionarily conserved condensin complexes which play fundamental roles in chromosome dynamics during mitosis and meiosis. Therefore, mechanisms related to mitotic chromosome condensation have been long hypothesized to mediate dosage compensation. However experimental evidence was lacking.
Using 3D FISH microscopy to measure the volumes of X and chromosome I territories and to measure distances between individual loci, we show that hermaphrodite worms deficient in DCC proteins have enlarged interphase X chromosomes when compared to wild type. By contrast, chromosome I is unaffected. Interestingly, hermaphrodite worms depleted of condensin I or II show no phenotype. Therefore X chromosome compaction is specific to condensin IDC. In addition, we show that SET-1, SET-4, and SIR-2.1, histone modifiers whose activity is regulated by the DCC, need to be present for the compaction of the X chromosome territory.
These results support the idea that condensin IDC, and the histone modifications regulated by the DCC, mediate interphase X chromosome compaction. Our results link condensin-mediated chromosome compaction, an activity connected to mitotic chromosome condensation, to chromosome-wide repression of gene expression in interphase.
KeywordsCaenorhabditis elegans Dosage compensation Gene expression Condensin Chromosome condensation Chromatin Interphase chromosome Epigenetics
In many species, such as humans, mice, flies, and worms, sex is determined by a chromosome-based method which entails a difference in sex chromosome number between heterogametic males (XY or XO) and homogametic females (XX). If left uncorrected this difference puts one sex at a disadvantage. Therefore, species have evolved a specialized gene regulatory mechanism to correct this imbalance, known as dosage compensation. Dosage compensation balances X and autosomal expression and equalizes gene expression between the sexes .
The molecular mechanism of dosage compensation varies among species. Mammals, flies, and worms achieve dosage compensation using three distinct strategies. In the fly, Drosophila melanogaster, the male X is upregulated by two-fold, a mechanism that balances gene expression between the X and autosomes and equalizes male to female X-linked gene expression [2, 3]. In mammals and the nematode C. elegans, it is hypothesized that an unknown mechanism upregulates X chromosome expression in both sexes [4–8]. Although X upregulation balances X and autosomal expression in males it also causes X overexpression in females/hermaphrodites. As a result, to prevent hyperexpression of the X chromosomes, mammalian XX females inactivate one X [9–11], while XX hermaphrodite C. elegans worms downregulate both X chromosomes two-fold [12, 13]. Although dosage compensation mechanisms vary among species, all lead to the balance between X and autosomal expression and equalize gene expression between the sexes.
In C. elegans, dosage compensation is achieved by the dosage compensation complex (DCC) which binds to both X chromosomes to downregulate X-linked gene expression in hermaphrodites. Condensin IDC, a subcomplex within the DCC, contains two SMC (structural maintenance of chromosome) proteins (DPY-27 and MIX-1) and three CAP (chromosome-associated polypeptide) proteins (DPY-26, DPY-28, and CAPG-1). In addition, the DCC contains five associated proteins (SDC-1, SDC-2, SDC-3, DPY-30, and DPY-21) [14–21]. Interestingly, condensin IDC differs from the mitotic condensin I complex by only one subunit: DPY-27 replaces SMC-4 [15, 21]. Condensins are evolutionarily conserved complexes, which promote chromosome compaction, organization, and segregation during mitosis and meiosis . Although condensin IDC is homologous to condensin, the DCC appears to have no mitotic function, and it instead functions in the repression of gene expression. Because condensin complexes organize and compact chromosomes in preparation for mitosis, it has been long hypothesized that DCC activity also results in changes in X chromosome compaction . However the direct experimental evidence supporting this hypothesis is lacking.
Condensins (I and II) are conserved protein complexes that organize chromatin structure and whose functions are best studied in mitosis and meiosis. Although structurally similar, the mitotic functions of condensins I and II differ. Condensin I laterally compacts mitotic chromosomes, whereas condensin II mediates axial compaction and rigidity [23–26]. During C. elegans meiosis, the depletion of condensin I or condensin II leads to an expansion of chromosome axial length . In Xenopus laevis eggs, S. pombe and S. cerevisiae, condensin is required for mitotic chromosome condensation [27–30], while in other organisms, such as mammals and worms, condensin II is required for prophase condensation [15, 24, 31]. However, in many systems, including Drosophila, worms, mammals, and chicken DT40 cells, depletion of condensins I and II leads primarily to defects in anaphase chromosome segregation, such as lagging chromosomes and chromosome bridges, rather than defects in chromosome condensation . Overall, in many organisms, mitotic chromosomes still compact when condensin is disrupted suggesting that condensin is not solely responsible for chromosome condensation.
Condensin activities are well studied in mitosis and meiosis, but the interphase functions of condensins are less understood. In higher eukaryotes condensin I is cytoplasmic in interphase and loads onto chromosomes after nuclear envelope breakdown, whereas condensin II is nuclear throughout the cell cycle [24, 26, 32–34]. Therefore, it is condensin II, rather than condensin I, that is thought to play an important role in the interphase nucleus in these organisms. In Drosophila, condensin II activity disrupts somatic homolog pairing and leads to interphase chromosome compaction [35–38]. In addition to compaction, condensin II is required for the proper formation of chromosome territories . Evidence of condensin II-mediated interphase chromosome compaction has also been demonstrated during the development of quiescent naïve T-cells  and in mouse embryonic stem cells . In both budding and fission yeast, condensin-dependent RNA polymerase III-transcribed gene clustering at or near the nucleolus contributes to the three-dimensional organization of the genome [42, 43]. Although there is accumulating evidence demonstrating that condensin II, or the single yeast condensin, participates in interphase chromatin organization, whether the condensin I-like complex, condensin IDC, organizes the interphase X chromosome in a similar manner is unclear.
Emerging evidence has uncovered that histone tail modifications also influence mitotic chromosome condensation. During cell cycle progression the acetylation of histone H4 lysine 16 (H4K16ac) increases during S phase and decreases during mitosis [44, 45]. By contrast, histone H4 lysine 20 monomethylation (H4K20me1) levels are higher in mitosis [44, 46]. Expression of the H4K20 methyltransferase, PR-SET7, is coincident with the increase of H4K20me1 during mitosis [44, 46]. The negative correlation between these two modifications during the cell cycle is consistent with previous findings that H4K20me1 antagonizes H4K16ac . In yeast, the phosphorylation of histone H3 serine 10 recruits the Sir2 homolog Hst2 to promote deacetylation of H4K16ac. Together, this cascade of histone modifications was proposed to drive chromatin hypercondensation during mitosis, independently from condensin .
Interestingly, similar changes in histone modifications are observed on interphase dosage compensated X chromosomes in C. elegans. The DCC regulates SET-1 (PR-SET7 homolog) and SET-4 (SUV4-20 homolog), which together mediate the enrichment of H4K20me1 on the X chromosomes [48, 49]. The DCC also regulates SIR-2.1 (Sir2 homolog), which mediates the depletion of H4K16ac on the X chromosomes . These observations suggest that interphase dosage compensated X chromosomes possess some characteristics associated with condensed mitotic chromosome.
In this study, we present experimental evidence linking condensin-mediated chromosome compaction to chromosome-wide repression of gene expression during dosage compensation. We show that hermaphrodite worms deficient in DCC function, as well as male worms, exhibit enlarged X chromosomes when compared to wild type hermaphrodites. This result supports the idea that condensin IDC mediates interphase X chromosome compaction. In addition, we show that DCC-regulated histone modifiers contribute to X chromosome compaction. Together these results give us more insight into the functional link between mitotic chromosome condensation and epigenetic control of gene expression.
Dosage compensation mediates changes in X chromosome volumes
We observed that the X chromosome territories in hermaphrodite nuclei depleted of the DCC subunit DPY-27 occupied a significantly larger percentage than in wild type hermaphrodite nuclei (Figure 1C and D). In wild type hermaphrodites the X chromosome territories were compact with a mean percent nuclear volume of 10.31 ± 1.98%. Depletion of the condensin IDC-specific protein, DPY-27 , by feeding RNAi, led to enlarged X chromosomes compared to wild type, occupying 17.28 ± 3.16% of the nucleus (P = 8.49E-22). Interestingly, the volume of the X chromosomes in DPY-27-depleted hermaphrodite nuclei closely correlates with the X chromosome DNA content relative to the total genome size of C. elegans, 18%, see Figure 1B. The smaller percent nuclear volume in wild type hermaphrodites suggests that condensin IDC activity results in X chromosomes that are more compact than genomic average.
We predicted that the percent nuclear volume of a single male X would be close to half of the volume of the two DPY-27-depleted hermaphrodite X chromosomes, about 9%, and close to the percent predicted by DNA content, about 10%, see Figure 1B. Surprisingly, we found that the single X chromosome territory in males was larger, occupying the mean percentage of 15.73 ± 2.63. It is possible that the DPY-27-depleted X chromosome territory is not fully decondensed because a small amount of DPY-27 remains after feeding RNAi. An alternate possibility is that chromosome decondensation might contribute to X upregulation in males. X upregulation has been hypothesized to occur in both sexes in mammals and worms to balance the single male X to autosomes; however the mechanism in worms is unknown (see Discussion). We also analyzed males depleted of DPY-27 and found that the X chromosome remained unchanged compared to control males. Together these results support the idea that condensin IDC mediates X chromosome compaction in hermaphrodites and suggest that chromosome decondensation may be involved in X upregulation in males.
We next asked whether the observed enlargement of chromosome territories was specific to the dosage compensated X chromosomes by analyzing the autosomal territory of chromosome I. The percentage occupied by chromosome I was consistent in wild type hermaphrodites (14.26 ± 2.57), males (14.24 ± 2.90), and dpy-27(RNAi) hermaphrodite worms (14.46 ± 2.50) (Figure 1E and F). Like the X chromosomes in DPY-27-depleted nuclei, the volume occupied by chromosome I closely correlates with the DNA content of chromosome I relative to the total genome size (Figure 1B). These data indicate that the chromosome territory enlargement in DPY-27-depleted nuclei is not occurring genome-wide but is unique to the dosage compensated X chromosomes.
Consistent with dosage compensation’s role in reducing gene expression, our data show that the relative size of X chromosomes is also reduced. We next wanted to determine if the two X chromosomes behave similarly and are compacted to similar extents. We performed this analysis in the 32-ploid intestinal nuclei. We measured individual chromosome volumes, arbitrarily designating the larger territory X1 and the smaller territory X2. Fifty-two percent of vector control worms, and 33% of dpy-27(RNAi) worms had two clear X chromosome territories. We observed that both chromosome territories X1 and X2 in hermaphrodite nuclei depleted of DPY-27 occupied a significantly larger percentage than in vector control nuclei (Additional file 1: Figure S1). The caveat of this experiment is that the chromosomes are not individually marked and the X1 territory in one genotype does not necessarily corresponds to X1 in the other. However, together with the observation that both X chromosomes associate with the dosage compensation complex, we favor the interpretation that both Xs are affected to similar degrees.
Diploid DCC-depleted nuclei also have enlarged X chromosomes
X chromatin compaction is evident at all genomic distances examined
X chromosome compaction is not regulated by condensin I or condensin II
Changes in DCC-mediated histone modifiers effect X chromosome structure
Previous gene expression studies in DCC mutants showed that X expression increases while autosomal expression decreases compared to wild type . Assuming that these gene expression changes are reflected in chromosome volume changes, we would predict that an increase in the volume of the X is accompanied by a decrease in the volume of autosomes. If the X is occupying an extra 7% of the nucleus, the five pairs of autosomes together will occupy 7% less, approximately 1.4% less for each autosome. We did not detect any decrease in chromosome I volume, but our method may not be sensitive enough to detect such a small change.
Condensins and cell cycle regulation
Condensins are conserved complexes that play fundamental roles in chromosome dynamics throughout the cell cycle . Similar to conserved condensin II activities, C. elegans condensin II is required for prophase chromosome condensation and anaphase segregation [31, 58]. However, condensin I’s role in C. elegans is less understood. It is believed that condensin I plays a less critical role in mitosis and development than condensin II, because condensin I depletions lead to less severe phenotypes . Condensin’s role in mitosis and meiosis has been widely studied, however recent evidence revealed that the condensin complexes also contribute to a variety of interphase chromosome functions. A prominent example is the C. elegans condensin I-like complex, condensin IDC, which does not function in mitosis or meiosis, but instead regulates chromosome- and sex-specific gene expression . Interestingly, condensin IDC differs from the condensin I complex by only one subunit. It is assumed that during evolution, the condensin I subunit SMC-4 duplicated and diverged giving rise to DPY-27. This resulted in the formation of condensin IDC with the specialized function of dosage compensation. It is believed that the mechanism of dosage compensation is closely linked to condensin’s role in regulating chromosome architecture.
In this study, we report that condensin IDC is responsible for compacting interphase X chromosome territory, both at the level of whole chromosome territories, and by measuring 3D-distances between probe pairs separated by various genomic distances. Evidence of condensin-mediated interphase chromosome compaction has also been found in Drosophila and mice [35, 39–41]. Condensin activity is required to unpair polytene chromosomes and disperse heterochromatin in Drosophila. In mice, the condensin-mediated condensation is required for proper T-cell development and maintenance of the quiescent state . Condensin has also been found to be required for chromatin compaction and viability in ES cell . In these systems, condensin mediates chromosome changes genome-wide. By contrast, in C. elegans, condensin IDC causes chromosome specific changes. It is also interesting to note that in flies and mice condensin II plays a role in interphase chromosome [35, 39–41], while our data do not support a role for condensin II, only condensin IDC. These differences between our findings and previous data may reflect a difference between the species or the type of cells examined. Indeed, cell-type specific differences in condensin usage have been observed before, at least in the context of mitotic chromosome condensation .
It should be noted that our studies were performed on postmitotic cells. Whether there are differences in how condensin IDC affects X chromosome compaction in G1, S, or G2 phase of cycling cells is unknown. However, a chromatin mark associated with dosage compensation, enrichment of H4K20me1, appears several cell cycles after the DCC assembles on the X chromosomes [48, 60], suggesting that full compaction may require passage through mitosis.
Molecular mechanisms of condensin
Although some of the biological functions of condensins have been uncovered, our understanding of condensin’s molecular mechanisms remains poor. Condensins contain two SMC (structural maintenance of chromosomes) proteins and three CAP (chromosome-associated polypeptide) proteins. The two SMC proteins are ATPases, and their ability to hydrolyze ATP is essential for condensin function . One of the better-studied biochemical activities of condensin, found in many eukaryotic species, is its ability to supercoil DNA in vitro. This supercoiling requires its ATPase activity, as well as all five subunits [31, 61–64]. The introduction of positive supercoiling is proposed to lead to the formation of chiral loops [22, 65] and facilitate decatenation of sister chromatids by topoisomerase II . This would further compact the chromatin fibers to form higher order assemblies. In addition to supercoiling, the SMC proteins of condensins have been found to play a role in reannealing complementary ssDNAs into dsDNAs . Condensins’ reannealing activity might help ‘fix’ ssDNA to prepare it for the formation of mitotic chromosomes. Condensin is also believed to entrap the chromatin fiber by encircling two distinct segments of the chromatin fiber . Together these ATP-dependent biochemical activities are thought to result in condensed mitotic chromosomes. In C. elegans specific point mutations of the ATP-binding motifs of DPY-27 and MIX-1 disrupt dosage compensation [14, 16]. These results suggest another link between condensin’s function in mitosis and dosage compensation.
Condensin and chromatin regulated chromosome compaction
In addition to condensin-mediated mitotic chromosome condensation, histone modifications have also been found to contribute to chromatin hypercondensation during mitosis [44–46]. Interestingly, similar histone modifications are present on interphase dosage compensated X chromosomes in C. elegans. The monomethylation of H4K20 is increased, whereas acetylation of H4K16 is decreased, both on mitotic chromosomes and on interphase dosage compensated X chromosomes [44–46, 48, 49]. This is consistent with the hypothesis that mechanisms related to mitotic chromosome condensation mediate dosage compensation. In mitosis, H4K16 deacetylation leads to a stronger interaction between H2A and H4 on adjacent nucleosomes, thus leading to the formation of higher order chromosomes packaging [45, 69]. Our results suggest that DCC-mediated X chromosome compaction requires both the enrichment of H4K20me1 and the depletion of H4K16ac on the X chromosomes similar to the events occurring in mitosis. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that additional factors also contribute to the compaction of the X chromosome. In mitosis, it is believed that this cascade of histone modifications is acting independently of condensin to compact chromosomes . By contrast, X-enrichment of H4K20me1 and depletion of H4K16ac during dosage compensation is DCC- (therefore condensin-) dependent . It will be interesting to determine the exact mechanistic contributions of these modifications both to mitotic chromosome condensation and dosage compensation.
Upregulation of the X chromosome
X upregulation balances the single male X to autosomes. In flies, X upregulation is male specific, but in mammals and worms it is hypothesized that upregulation occurs in both sexes. Male-specific upregulation of the X chromosome in Drosophila is mediated by the MSL (male-specific lethal) complex [70, 71]. The MSL complex binds to the male X chromosome, concentrates MOF acetyltransferase activity, and leads to increased H4K16ac on the hyperactive X [72, 73]. The MSL complex has been shown to mediate two chromatin alterations. First, the presence of the complex reduces the level of negative supercoiling . Second, the acetylation of H4K16 alone weakens nucleosome packing in a chromatin fiber and causes chromatin decondensation on the male X chromosome . Microarray and RNA-seq analysis have provided some evidence for X upregulation in mammals and worms [4–8]. In mammals it is believed that H4K16ac and enhanced transcription initiation contribute to X upregulation . However, the mechanism in worms is unknown, but it may involve changes in chromatin structure. Our data show that in C. elegans the single male X chromosome territory is larger than expected. This result suggests that chromosome decondensation might contribute to the X upregulation mechanism. It will be of great interest to explore what is mediating chromosome decondensation in C. elegans males. Previous studies have indicated that in the absence of DCC activity, H4K16ac is enriched on hermaphrodite X chromosomes, suggesting that this mark may be involved in the X upregulation process. However, males show no enrichment of H4K16ac by immunofluorescence microscopy . In addition, there is no enrichment of H4K16ac on the X chromosomes in early hermaphrodite, male, or DCC-mutant embryos . Therefore, further investigation is required to determine the mechanisms causing chromosome decondensation and X upregulation in males.
It has been long hypothesized that DCC activity results in interphase X chromosome compaction. However, the experimental evidence was lacking. Our results are consistent with this long standing hypothesis suggesting that dosage compensated X chromosomes maintain some characteristics associated with condensed mitotic chromosome. Our studies of C. elegans condensin IDC-mediated compaction may shed further light on the mechanisms of chromatin organization and gene repression by condensin in other organisms. Future studies will examine the factors that directly contribute to X upregulation and possibly chromosome decondensation in males.
All experimental procedures on C. elegans followed internationally recognized guidelines and were approved by the University of Michigan Institutional Biosafety Committee, which follows guidelines established by the National Institute of Health. IBC registration number: IBC00000599. All strains were maintained on NG agar plates with E. coli (OP50) as a food source, using standard methods . Strains include: N2 Bristol strain (wild type); TY4403 him-8(e1489) IV; TY1936 dpy-30(y228) V/nT1 (unc-? (n754) let-?); TY3936 dpy-21(e428); SS1075 set-1(tm1821) III/ hT2g; MT14911 set-4(n4600) II; VC199 sir-2.1(ok434) IV. Males were obtained from him-8(e1489) hermaphrodites. Mutations in him-8 cause X chromosome nondisjunction in meiosis and result in 38% of progeny being XO males.
E. coli HT115 bacteria expressing double stranded RNA for dpy-30, dpy-21, dpy-27, smc-4, capg-2, hcp-6, or vector control (polylinker), were used for feeding RNAi using the Ahringer laboratory RNAi feeding library . One generation feeding RNAi (WT on smc-4 RNAi, WT on capg-2 RNAi, WT on hcp-6 RNAi) was performed as follows: L1-stage larvae were placed on plates seeded with RNAi bacteria and grown to adulthood. Two generation feeding RNAi (all other analysis) was performed as follows; P0 adults from one generation feeding RNAi were transferred to new RNAi plates to produce progeny for 24 h. These progeny (F1 generation) were grown to adulthood and examined.
Fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH)
FISH probe templates were generated by degenerate oligonucleotide primed PCR to amplify purified yeast artificial chromosome (YAC) DNA [50, 78]. The labeled chromosome-paint probes were prepared as described previously . To perform FISH, adult animals (24 h post-L4) with or without previous RNAi treatment were dissected and fixed in 2% PFA, 1× sperm salts, on a slide for 5 min at room temperature. The slide was covered with a coverslip and placed on a dry ice block for 10 min. The coverslip was quickly removed from the slide, and the slides were washed three times in PBST for 10 min each, dehydrated through an ethanol series (70%, 80%, 95%, 100% ethanol, 2 min each) and air dried. A total of 10 uL of probe was added to the slide. The samples were covered with a coverslip, placed on a 95°C heat block for 3 min, and slowly cooled to 37°C for an overnight incubation. The following washing regime was used at 37°C: three 5-min washes in 2× SSC with 50% formamide, then three 5-min washes in 2× SSC, and one 10-min wash in 1× SSC. Samples were incubated in PBST for 10 minutes with DAPI. Slides were mounted with Vectashield (Vector Laboratories) .
Microscopy and image analysis
Images were captured with a Hamamatsu Orca-Erga close-coupled-device (CCD) camera mounted on an Olympus BX61 motorized Z-drive microscope using a 60× APO oil immersion objective. 3D image stacks were collected for each nucleus at 0.2 micrometer Z-spacing. Projection images were generated from these optical sections.
For volume measurements, masks were set using the ‘mask → segment’ function. The mask is established by a user-defined intensity threshold value applied over an image in order to distinguish real signal from background signal and autofluorescence. The same standard of background signal exclusion was applied to all nuclei, based upon the levels of background signal and autofluorescence observed. This was done for each channel of an image. The total volume of the ‘whole nucleus’ mask was calculated from DAPI signal. DAPI signal was set as the primary mask and the three dimensional pixels (voxels) were measured through Slidebook (morphometry → volume). The volume of the X chromosome or chromosome I mask was calculated from the paint signals. Chromosome-paint signals were set as the secondary mask and for each object in the primary mask. The number of overlapping voxels in the secondary mask was calculated by Slidebook (cross mask → mask overlaps). The percentage of nuclear volume occupied by either the X chromosome or chromosome I was obtained by dividing the volume of the specific chromosome over the volume of the whole nucleus. This percentage was calculated for each nucleus within an experimental set. The percentages where then averaged over all nuclei within an experimental set to calculate the final mean percentage of nuclear volume occupied by the X chromosome or chromosome I value shown on each graph. Descriptive statistics (standard deviation and sample size) were also calculated. Sample sizes are listed in each figure. Error bars shown are means +/- 1 standard deviation of the mean. Percent volume differences were evaluated by unpaired (two sample) Student’s T-test.
To calculate the distance between two probes in three dimension, the xyz coordinate of the centroid of each YAC probe signals were determined and measured using Slidebook. The distance between the two probes was the distance between two separate spots closest to one another. The distances where then analyzed over all nuclei within an experimental set to calculate the final median and interquartile range of the data shown in boxplots. Descriptive statistics (minimum, maximum, and sample size) were also calculated. Sample sizes are listed in each figure. Whiskers shown indicate distribution from minimum to maximum. Probe distance differences were evaluated by unpaired (two sample) Student’s T-test.
Dosage compensation complex
Structural maintenance of chromosome
Histone H4 lysine 16 acetylation
Histone H4 lysine 20 monomethylation
Fluorescent in situ hybridization
Yeast artificial chromosome
We thank members of the Csankovszki lab for helpful project discussions. This work was supported by National Science Foundation grant MCB 1021013 (to GC). Some nematode strains used in this work were provided by the Caenorhabditis Genetics Center, which is funded by the NIH National Center for Research Resources. The set-1(tm1821) allele was provided by the Mitani laboratory through the National Bioresource Project of the MEXT, Japan.
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