Down syndrome confers a 20-fold increased risk of B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL), and polysomy 21 is the most frequent somatic aneuploidy among all B-ALLs. Yet the mechanistic links between chromosome 21 triplication and B-ALL remain undefined. Here we show that germline triplication of only 31 genes orthologous to human chromosome 21q22 confers mouse progenitor B cell self renewal in vitro, maturation defects in vivo and B-ALL with either the BCR-ABL fusion protein or CRLF2 with activated JAK2. Chromosome 21q22 triplication suppresses histone H3 Lys27 trimethylation (H3K27me3) in progenitor B cells and B-ALLs, and 'bivalent' genes with both H3K27me3 and H3K4me3 at their promoters in wild-type progenitor B cells are preferentially overexpressed in triplicated cells. Human B-ALLs with polysomy 21 are distinguished by their overexpression of genes marked with H3K27me3 in multiple cell types. Overexpression of HMGN1, a nucleosome remodeling protein encoded on chromosome 21q22 (refs. 3,4,5), suppresses H3K27me3 and promotes both B cell proliferation in vitro and B-ALL in vivo.