Histone modifications influence the interactions of transcriptional regulators with chromatin. Studies in embryos and embryonic stem (ES) cells have uncovered histone modification patterns that are diagnostic for different cell types and developmental stages. For example, bivalent domains consisting of regions of H3 lysine 27 trimethylation (H3K27me3) and H3 lysine 4 trimethylation (H3K4me3) mark lineage control genes in ES cells and zebrafish blastomeres. Such bivalent domains have garnered attention because the H3K27me3 mark might help repress lineage-regulatory genes during pluripotency while the H3K4me3 mark could poise genes for activation upon differentiation. Despite the prominence of the bivalent domain concept, studies in other model organisms have questioned its universal nature, and the function of bivalent domains has remained unclear. Histone marks are also associated with developmental regulatory genes in sperm. These observations have raised the possibility that specific histone modification patterns might persist from parent to offspring, but it is unclear whether histone marks are inherited or formed de novo. Here, we review the potential roles of H3K4me3 and H3K27me3 marks in embryos and ES cells and discuss how histone marks might be established, maintained and resolved during embryonic development.
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