Yeast histone H4 function was probed in vivo by deleting segments of this extremely conserved 102 amino acid protein. Deletions in the hydrophobic core of H4 are lethal and block chromosomal segregation. In contrast, deletions at the hydrophilic N terminus (residues 4-28) and C terminus (residues 100-102) are viable. However, N-terminal deletion alters normal chromatin structure and lengthens the cell cycle, especially G2. Surprisingly, removal of the H4 N terminus also derepresses the silent mating type loci, HML alpha and HMRa, disrupting mating. This activation is specific since other regulated genes (GAL10, PHO5, CUP1) are repressed and induced normally in these cells. Deletions of the hydrophilic N termini of H2A or H2B do not show this effect on mating. These experiments allow us to define a unique H4 function that is not shared by other histones (H2A and H2B).