Tetrahymena thermophila cells contain three forms of H2A: major H2A.1 and H2A.2, which make up approximately 80% of total H2A, and a conserved variant, H2A.Z. We showed previously that acetylation of H2A.Z was essential (Q. Ren and M. A. Gorovsky, Mol. Cell 7:1329-1335, 2001). Here we used in vitro mutagenesis of lysine residues, coupled with gene replacement, to identify the sites of acetylation of the N-terminal tail of the major H2A and to analyze its function in vivo. Tetrahymena cells survived with all five acetylatable lysines replaced by arginines plus a mutation that abolished acetylation of the N-terminal serine normally found in the wild-type protein. Thus, neither posttranslational nor cotranslational acetylation of major H2A is essential. Surprisingly, the nonacetylatable N-terminal tail of the major H2A was able to replace the essential function of the acetylation of the H2A.Z N-terminal tail. Tail-swapping experiments between H2A.1 and H2A.Z revealed that the nonessential acetylation of the major H2A N-terminal tail can be made to function as an essential charge patch in place of the H2A.Z N-terminal tail and that while the pattern of acetylation of an H2A N-terminal tail is determined by the tail sequence, the effects of acetylation on viability are determined by properties of the H2A core and not those of the N-terminal tail itself.