In mammals, sex is determined by a pair of unequal sex chromosomes. Genetically male mammals have an X and a Y chromosome while genetically female mammals have two X chromosomes. The X chromosome is many times larger than the Y chromosome. To compensate for this genetic inequality, female mammals undergo X chromosome inactivation in which one of the X chromosomes is randomly chosen to be silenced. X chromosome inactivation has been studied for over 50 years both because it is a physiologically important event and because it is an excellent model for studying epigenetic silencing of genes by long non-coding RNAs. In her first talk, Dr. Jeannie Lee gives an overview of the steps a cell must go through during X inactivation. These include “counting” the X chromosomes, deciding which X chromosome to inactivate, initiating the inactivation and spreading it across the chromosome, and finally maintaining inactivation of the same X chromosome for the rest of the life of the organism.
In her second talk, Lee elaborates on the early steps of X inactivation. Very early in development, cells “count” the number of X chromosomes and decide if one needs to be inactivated, and if so which one. There is a region of the X chromosome called the X inactivation center which is enriched in long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs). Lee explains how she and others showed that by sensing the ratio of two specific lncRNAs the cell can determine how many X chromosomes are present. Further studies showed that two different lncRNAs are responsible for randomly determining which X chromosome will be inactivated. Finally, she discusses the hypothesis that the allelic choice mechanism depends on a transient chromosomal pairing event that occurs at the beginning of the dosage compensation process.
And in her last talk, Lee describes how X inactivation is nucleated and spreads across the X chromosome. The Xist lncRNA is known to be necessary and sufficient for X inactivation. Lee describes experiments that identified the factors that tether Xist to the X chromosome and showed how Xist spreads to cover the entire X chromosome. She then goes on to explain that Xist blocks transcription in three ways: 1) Xist recruits factors that repress transcription via epigenetic modification such as histone methylation 2) Xist repels factors that open chromatin preparing it for transcription and 3) Xist changes the 3 dimensional organization of chromosomes. Lee ends with a model of our current understanding of the complex but critical process of X chromosome inactivation.
Dr. Jeannie Lee is a Professor in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and in the Department of Molecular Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Her lab uses X chromosome inactivation as a model to study epigenetic regulation by long noncoding RNAs. Lee received her AB in biochemistry and molecular biology from Harvard… Continue Reading