Reversible hypercondensation and decondensation of mitotic chromosomes studied using combined chemical-micromechanical techniques

Michael G. Poirier*, Tamar Monhait, John F. Marko

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

61 Scopus citations


We show that the chromatin in mitotic chromosomes can be drastically overcompacted or unfolded by temporary shifts in ion concentrations. By locally 'microspraying' reactants from micron-size pipettes, while simultaneously monitoring the size of and tension in single chromosomes, we are able to quantitatively study the dynamics of these reactions. The tension in a chromosome is monitored through observation and calibration of bending of the glass pipettes used to manipulate the chromosomes. For concentrations > 500 mM of NaCl and > 200 mM of MgCl2, we find that the initially applied tensions of ∼ 500 pN relax to zero and that mitotic chromatin temporarily disperses in agreement with previous work (Maniotis et al. [1997] J. Cell. Biochem. 65:114-130). This unfolding occurs in about 1 s, and is reversible once the charge density is returned to physiological levels, if the exposure is not longer than ∼ 1 min. Low concentrations of NaCl (< 30 mM) also induces a decrease in tension and increase in size. We observe this swelling to be isotropic in experiments on chromosomes under zero tension, a behavior inconsistent with the existence of a well-defined central chromosome 'scaffold'. By contrast 10 mM of divalent cations (MgCl2 and CaCl2) induces an extremely rapid and reversible increase in tension and a reduction in the size of mitotic chromosomes. Hexaminecobalt trichloride (trivalent cation) has the same effect as MgCl2 and CaCl2, except the magnitude of force increase and size change are much larger. Hexaminecobalt trichloride reduces mitotic chromosomes to 65% of their original volume, indicating that at least 1/3 of their apparent volume is aqueous solution. These results indicate that chromatin inside mitotic chromatids has a large amount of conformational freedom allowing dynamic unfolding and refolding and that charge interactions play a central role in maintaining mitotic chromosome structure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)422-434
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Cellular Biochemistry
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2002


  • Chromatin
  • DNA-protein interaction
  • Electrostatics
  • Mitotic chromosomes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Cell Biology


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