Histone variants are chromatin components that replace replication-coupled histones in a fraction of nucleosomes and confer particular characteristics to chromatin. H2A variants represent the most numerous and diverse group among histone protein families. In the nucleosomal structure, H2A-H2B dimers can be removed and exchanged more easily than the stable H3-H4 core. The unstructured N-terminal histone tails of all histones, but also the C-terminal tails of H2A histones protrude out of the compact structure of the nucleosome core. These accessible tails are the preferential target sites for a large number of post-translational modifications (PTMs). While some PTMs are shared between replication-coupled H2A and H2A variants, many modifications are limited to a specific histone variant. The present review focuses on the H2A variants H2A.Z, H2A.X, and macroH2A, and summarizes their functions in chromatin and how these are linked to cancer development and progression. H2A.Z primarily acts as an oncogene and macroH2A and H2A.X as tumour suppressors. We further focus on the regulation by PTMs, which helps to understand a degree of context dependency.
Keywords: H2A.X; H2A.Z; cancer; epigenetics; histone variants; macroH2A; post-translational modifications.