Polytene chromosomes: 70 years of genetic research

Int Rev Cytol. 2004;241:203-75. doi: 10.1016/S0074-7696(04)41004-3.


Polytene chromosomes were described in 1881 and since 1934 they have served as an outstanding model for a variety of genetic experiments. Using the polytene chromosomes, numerous biological phenomena were discovered. First the polytene chromosomes served as a model of the interphase chromosomes in general. In polytene chromosomes, condensed (bands), decondensed (interbands), genetically active (puffs), and silent (pericentric and intercalary heterochromatin as well as regions subject to position effect variegation) regions were found and their features were described in detail. Analysis of the general organization of replication and transcription at the cytological level has become possible using polytene chromosomes. In studies of sequential puff formation it was found for the first time that the steroid hormone (ecdysone) exerts its action through gene activation, and that the process of gene activation upon ecdysone proceeds as a cascade. Namely on the polytene chromosomes a new phenomenon of cellular stress response (heat shock) was discovered. Subsequently chromatin boundaries (insulators) were discovered to flank the heat shock puffs. Major progress in solving the problems of dosage compensation and position effect variegation phenomena was mainly related to studies on polytene chromosomes. This review summarizes the current status of studies of polytene chromosomes and of various phenomena described using this successful model.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Chromosomes / genetics*
  • Chromosomes / ultrastructure*
  • DNA Replication / genetics
  • Dosage Compensation, Genetic
  • Gene Silencing / physiology
  • Genetics
  • Interphase / genetics*
  • Transcription, Genetic / genetics*