The tandemly organised ribosomal DNA (rDNA) repeats are transcribed by a dedicated RNA polymerase in a specialised nuclear compartment, the nucleolus. There appears to be an intimate link between the maintenance of nucleolar structure and the presence of heterochromatic chromatin domains. This is particularly evident in many large neurons, where a single nucleolus is present, which is separated from the remainder of the nucleus by a characteristic shell of heterochromatin. Using a combined fluorescence in situ hybridisation and immunocytochemistry approach, we have analysed the molecular composition of this highly organised neuronal chromatin, to investigate its functional significance. We find that clusters of inactive, methylated rDNA repeats are present inside large neuronal nucleoli, which are often attached to the shell of heterochromatic DNA. Surprisingly, the methylated DNA-binding protein MeCP2, which is abundantly present in the centromeric and perinucleolar heterochromatin, does not associate significantly with the methylated rDNA repeats, whereas histone H1 does overlap partially with these clusters. Histone H1 also defines other, centromere-associated chromatin subdomains, together with the mammalian Polycomb group factor Eed. These data indicate that neuronal, perinucleolar heterochromatin consists of several classes of inactive DNA, that are linked to a fraction of the inactive rDNA repeats. These distinct chromatin domains may serve to regulate RNA transcription and processing efficiently and to protect rDNA repeats against unwanted silencing and/or homologous recombination events.
- © 2000 by Company of Biologists