A Synthetic Approach to Reconstruct the Evolutionary and Functional Innovations of the Plant Histone Variant H2A.W

Curr Biol. 2021 Jan 11;31(1):182-191.e5. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.09.080. Epub 2020 Oct 22.


Diversification of histone variants is marked by the acquisition of distinct motifs and functional properties through convergent evolution.1-4 H2A variants are distinguished by specific C-terminal motifs and tend to be segregated within defined domains of the genome.5,6 Whether evolution of these motifs pre-dated the evolution of segregation mechanisms or vice versa has remained unclear. A suitable model to address this question is the variant H2A.W, which evolved in plants through acquisition of a KSPK motif7 and is tightly associated with heterochromatin.4 We used fission yeast, where chromatin is naturally devoid of H2A.W, to study the impact of engineered chimeras combining yeast H2A with the KSPK motif. Biochemical assays showed that the KSPK motif conferred nucleosomes with specific properties. Despite uniform incorporation of the engineered H2A chimeras in the yeast genome, the KSPK motif specifically affected heterochromatin composition and function. We conclude that the KSPK motif promotes chromatin properties in yeast that are comparable to the properties and function of H2A.W in plant heterochromatin. We propose that the selection of functional motifs confer histone variants with properties that impact primarily a specific chromatin state. The association between a new histone variant and a preferred chromatin state can thus provide a setting for the evolution of mechanisms that segregate the new variant to this state, thereby enhancing the impact of the selected properties of the variant on genome activity.

Keywords: H2A.M; H2A.W; chromatin; evolution; heterochromatin; histone; histone variant; streptophytes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Motifs / genetics
  • Arabidopsis / genetics
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Heterochromatin / genetics*
  • Heterochromatin / metabolism
  • Histones / genetics*
  • Histones / metabolism
  • Nucleosomes / metabolism
  • Phylogeny
  • Plant Proteins / genetics*
  • Plant Proteins / metabolism
  • Schizosaccharomyces
  • Schizosaccharomyces pombe Proteins / genetics*
  • Schizosaccharomyces pombe Proteins / metabolism
  • Selaginellaceae / genetics
  • Synthetic Biology


  • Heterochromatin
  • Histones
  • Nucleosomes
  • Plant Proteins
  • Schizosaccharomyces pombe Proteins