Methylation of histone H3 lysine 9 (H3K9) is a key feature of silent chromatin and plays an important role in stabilizing the interaction of heterochromatin protein 1 (HP1) with chromatin. Genomes of metazoans such as the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster generally encode three types of H3K9-specific SET domain methyltransferases that contribute to chromatin homeostasis during the life cycle of the organism. SU(VAR)3-9, dG9a, and dSETDB1 all function in the generation of wild-type H3K9 methylation levels in the Drosophila genome. Two of these enzymes, dSETDB1 and SU(VAR)3-9, govern heterochromatin formation in distinct but overlapping patterns across the genome. H3K9 methylation in the small, heterochromatic fourth chromosome of D. melanogaster is governed mainly by dSETDB1, whereas dSETDB1 and SU(VAR)3-9 function in concert to methylate H3K9 in the pericentric heterochromatin of all chromosomes, with dG9a having little impact in these domains, as shown by monitoring position effect variegation. To understand how these distinct heterochromatin compartments may be differentiated, we examined the developmental timing of dSETDB1 function using a knockdown strategy. dSETDB1 acts to maintain heterochromatin during metamorphosis, at a later stage in development than the reported action of SU(VAR)3-9. Surprisingly, depletion of both of these enzymes has less deleterious effect than depletion of one. These results imply that dSETDB1 acts as a heterochromatin maintenance factor that may be required for the persistence of earlier developmental events normally governed by SU(VAR)3-9. In addition, the genetic interactions between dSETDB1 and Su(var)3-9 mutations emphasize the importance of maintaining the activities of these histone methyltransferases in balance for normal genome function.
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