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Heterochromatin definition and function

Heterochromatin is a key characteristic of eukaryotic genomes. Since its cytological description nearly 100 years ago, our understanding of heterochromatin features and functions, including transcription repression and genome stability, have continuously evolved. In this Viewpoint article, experts provide their current opinions on heterochromatin definition, types and functional mechanisms.

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Authors and Affiliations



Oliver Bell co-developed during his postdoctoral training with Dr Gerald R. Crabtree an innovative technology to artificially induce heterochromatin in cells and determine the properties of its spreading and heritability. In his own lab, he investigates the mechanisms of epigenetic gene silencing and the role of heterochromatin in regulation of cell identity.

Adam Burton is Deputy Director of the Institute of Epigenetics and Stem Cells at the Helmholtz Centre Munich. He has been working with Maria-Elena Torres-Padilla on the establishment and function of heterochromatin during early mammalian development for the past 12 years.

Caroline Dean investigates how plants use seasonal signals to judge when to flower, which has led to the study of conserved mechanisms of epigenetic regulation — specifically of Polycomb-mediated silencing. Her group studies how temperature affects transcription and epigenetic dynamics and how these processes change as plants adapt to new conditions.

Susan Gasser is a Swiss molecular biologist who has studied heterochromatin in yeast and in C. elegans since 1986. She had led a research group on chromatin organization and replication stress in Lausanne, in Geneva, and finally in Basel, and from 2004 to 2019, served as Director of the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research. She is now Director of the ISREC Foundation, Lausanne.

Maria-Elena Torres-Padilla is the Director of the Institute of Epigenetics and Stem Cells at Helmholtz Centre Munich and Professor of Stem Cell Biology at the Faculty of Biology of the Ludwig Maximilian University Munich. Her lab works on understanding the epigenetic principles underlying cellular reprogramming, totipotency and early mammalian development.

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Correspondence to Oliver Bell, Adam Burton, Caroline Dean, Susan M. Gasser or Maria-Elena Torres-Padilla.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Bell, O., Burton, A., Dean, C. et al. Heterochromatin definition and function. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol 24, 691–694 (2023).

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