The transition structure of chromatin fibers at the nanoscale probed by cryogenic electron tomography

Zhongwu Zhou, Kunpeng Li, Rui Yan, Guimei Yu, Christopher J. Gilpin, Wen Jiang, Joseph M.K. Irudayaraj

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


The naked DNA inside the nucleus interacts with proteins and RNAs forming a higher order chromatin structure to spatially and temporally control transcription in eukaryotic cells. The 30 nm chromatin fiber is one of the most important determinants of the regulation of eukaryotic transcription. However, the transition of chromatin from the 30 nm inactive higher order structure to the actively transcribed lower order nucleosomal arrays is unclear, which limits our understanding of eukaryotic transcription. Using a method to extract near-native eukaryotic chromatin, we revealed the chromatin structure at the transitional state from the 30 nm chromatin to multiple nucleosomal arrays by cryogenic electron tomography (cryo-ET). Reproducible electron microscopy images revealed that the transitional structure is a branching structure that the 30 nm chromatin hierarchically branches into lower order nucleosomal arrays, indicating chromatin compaction at different levels to control its accessibility during the interphase. We further observed that some of the chromatin fibers on the branching structure have a helix ribbon structure, while the others randomly twist together. Our finding of the chromatin helix ribbon structure on the extracted native chromatin revealed by cryo-ET indicates a complex higher order chromatin organization beyond the beads-on-a-string structure. The hierarchical branching and helix ribbon structure may provide mechanistic insights into how chromatin organization plays a central role in transcriptional regulation and other DNA-related biological processes during diseases such as cancer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)13783-13789
Number of pages7
Issue number29
StatePublished - Aug 7 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Materials Science(all)

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