Background: Chromosome segregation during mitosis and meiosis is triggered by dissolution of sister chromatid cohesion, which is mediated by the cohesin complex. Mitotic sister chromatid disjunction requires that cohesion be lost along the entire length of chromosomes, whereas homolog segregation at meiosis I only requires loss of cohesion along chromosome arms. During animal cell mitosis, cohesin is lost in two steps. A nonproteolytic mechanism removes cohesin along chromosome arms during prophase, while the proteolytic cleavage of cohesin's Scc1 subunit by separase removes centromeric cohesin at anaphase. In Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Caenorhabditis elegans, meiotic sister chromatid cohesion is mediated by Rec8, a meiosis-specific variant of cohesin's Scc1 subunit. Homolog segregation in S. cerevisiae is triggered by separase-mediated cleavage of Rec8 along chromosome arms. In principle, chiasmata could be resolved proteolytically by separase or nonproteolytically using a mechanism similar to the mitotic "prophase pathway."
Results: Inactivation of separase in C. elegans has little or no effect on homolog alignment on the meiosis I spindle but prevents their timely disjunction. It also interferes with chromatid separation during subsequent embryonic mitotic divisions but does not directly affect cytokinesis. Surprisingly, separase inactivation also causes osmosensitive embryos, possibly due to a defect in the extraembryonic structures, referred to as the "eggshell."
Conclusions: Separase is essential for homologous chromosome disjunction during meiosis I. Proteolytic cleavage, presumably of Rec8, might be a common trigger for the first meiotic division in eukaryotic cells. Cleavage of proteins other than REC-8 might be necessary to render the eggshell impermeable to solutes.