DNA injected into the Caenorhabditis elegans germline forms extrachromosomal arrays that segregate during cell division [1, 2]. The mechanisms underlying array formation and segregation are not known. Here, we show that extrachromosomal arrays form de novo centromeres at high frequency, providing unique access to a process that occurs with extremely low frequency in other systems [3-8]. De novo centromerized arrays recruit centromeric chromatin and kinetochore proteins and autonomously segregate on the spindle. Live imaging following DNA injection revealed that arrays form after oocyte fertilization via homologous recombination and nonhomologous end-joining. Individual arrays gradually transition from passive inheritance to active segregation during the early embryonic divisions. The heterochromatin protein 1 (HP1) family proteins HPL-1 and HPL-2 are dispensable for de novo centromerization even though arrays become strongly enriched for the heterochromatin-associated H3K9me3 modification over time. Partial inhibition of HP1 family proteins accelerates the acquisition of segregation competence. In addition to reporting the first direct visualization of new centromere formation in living cells, these findings reveal that naked DNA rapidly builds de novo centromeres in C. elegans embryos in an HP1-independent manner and suggest that, rather than being a prerequisite, HP1-dependent heterochromatin antagonizes de novo centromerization.
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