Post-translation modifications of histones modulate the accessibility and transcriptional competence of specific chromatin regions within the eukaryotic genome. Phosphorylation of histone H3 is unique in the sense that it associates on one hand with open chromatin during gene activation and marks on the other hand highly condensed chromatin during mitosis. Phosphorylation of serine residues at histone H3 is a highly dynamic process that creates together with acetylation and methylation marks at neighboring lysine residues specific combinatorial patterns that are read by specific detector proteins. In this review we describe the importance of different histone H3 phosphorylation marks for chromatin condensation during mitosis. In addition, we review the signals that trigger histone H3 phosphorylation and the factors that control this reversible modification during interphase and mediate the biological readout of the signal. Finally, we discuss different models describing the role of histone H3 phosphorylation in the activation of transcription of poised genes or by transient derepression of epigenetically silenced genes. We propose that histone H3 phosphorylation in the context with lysine methylation might temporarily relieve the silencing of specific genes without affecting the epigenetic memory.
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