Histone tails are highly flexible N- or C-terminal protrusions of histone proteins which facilitate the compaction of DNA into dense superstructures known as chromatin. On a molecular scale histone tails are polyelectrolytes with high degree of conformational disorder which allows them to function as biomolecular "switches", regulating various genetic processes. Unfortunately, their intrinsically disordered nature creates obstacles for comprehensive experimental investigation of both the structural and dynamical aspects of histone tails, because of which their conformational behaviors are still not well understood. In this work we have carried out ∼3 microsecond long all atom replica exchange molecular dynamics (REMD) simulations for each of four histone tails, H4, H3, H2B, and H2A, and probed their intrinsic conformational preferences. Our subsequent free energy landscape analysis demonstrated that most tails are not fully disordered, but show distinct conformational organization, containing specific flickering secondary structural elements. In particular, H4 forms β-hairpins, H3 and H2B adopt α-helical elements, while H2A is fully disordered. We rationalized observed patterns of conformational dynamics of various histone tails using ideas from physics of polyelectrolytes and disordered systems. We also discovered an intriguing re-entrant contraction-expansion of the tails upon heating, which is caused by subtle interplay between ionic screening and chain entropy.
© 2011 American Chemical Society