Research Article

A pathway for mitotic chromosome formation

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Science  09 Feb 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6376, eaao6135
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao6135

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Tracking mitotic chromosome formation

How cells pack DNA into fully compact, rod-shaped chromosomes during mitosis has fascinated cell biologists for more than a century. Gibcus et al. delineated the conformational transition trajectory from interphase chromatin to mitotic chromosomes minute by minute during the cell cycle. The mitotic chromosome is organized in a spiral staircase architecture in which chromatin loops emanate radially from a centrally located helical scaffold. The molecular machines condensin I and II play distinct roles in these processes: Condensin II is essential for helical winding, whereas condensin I modulates the organization within each helical turn.

Science, this issue p. eaao6135

Structured Abstract


During mitosis, cells compact their chromosomes into dense rod-shaped structures to ensure their reliable transmission to daughter cells. Our work explores how cells achieve this compaction. We integrate genetic, genomic, and computational approaches to characterize the key steps in mitotic chromosome formation from the G2 nucleus to metaphase, and we identify roles of specific molecular machines, condensin I and II, in these major conformational transitions.


We used chicken DT-40 cells expressing an analog-sensitive CDK1 to produce cell cultures that synchronously enter mitosis. We collected cells at key time points during mitotic entry; analyzed chromosome organization by microscopy, chromosome conformation capture, and polymer simulations; and delineated a pathway of mitotic chromosome formation. We used engineered cell lines to study the function of condensin complexes, which are critical for mitotic chromosome formation. We fused condensin I and II subunits to plant auxin-inducible degron domains, thus enabling their rapid depletion in late G2 just before mitotic entry. These cell lines allowed us to determine the roles of condensin I and II in specific steps of the mitotic chromosome morphogenesis pathway.


Our analysis of G2 chromosomes reveals hallmarks of interphase chromosomes, including topologically associating domains and compartments. Upon entry into prophase, this organization is lost within minutes, and by late prophase, chromosomes are folded as arrays of consecutive loops condensed around a central axis. These loops project with random but mutually correlated angles from the axis. During prometaphase, the loop array undergoes two major reorganizations. First, it acquires a helical arrangement of loops. Polymer simulations of Hi-C data show that the centrally located axis acquires a helical twist so that consecutive loops emanate as the steps of a spiral staircase. Second, the chromatin loops become nested with ~400-kb outer loops split up by ~80-kb inner loops. As prometaphase proceeds, chromosomes shorten through progressive helical winding, with the numbers of loops per turn increasing. As a result, the size of a helical turn grows from ~3 Mb (~40 loops) to ~12 Mb (~150 loops). Depletion of condensin I or II before mitotic entry revealed their differing roles in mitotic chromosome formation. Either condensin can mediate loop array formation. However, condensin II is required for the helical twisting of the scaffold from which loops emanate, whereas condensin I modulates the size and arrangement of nested inner loops.


We describe a pathway of mitotic chromosome folding that unifies many previous observations. In prophase, condensins mediate the loss of interphase organization and the formation of arrays of consecutive loops. In prometaphase, chromosomes adopt a spiral staircase–like structure with a helically arranged axial scaffold of condensin II at the bases of chromatin loops. The condensin II loops are further compacted by condensin I into clusters of smaller nested loops that are additionally collapsed by chromatin-to-chromatin attractions. The combination of nested loops distributed around a helically twisted axis plus dense chromatin packing achieves the 10,000-fold compaction of chromatin into linearly organized chromosomes that is required for accurate chromosome segregation when cells divide.

A pathway for mitotic chromosome formation.

In prophase, condensins mediate the loss of interphase chromosome conformation, and loop arrays are formed. In prometaphase, the combined action of condensin I (blue spheres in the bottom diagram) and II (red spheres) results in helically arranged nested loop arrays.


Mitotic chromosomes fold as compact arrays of chromatin loops. To identify the pathway of mitotic chromosome formation, we combined imaging and Hi-C analysis of synchronous DT40 cell cultures with polymer simulations. Here we show that in prophase, the interphase organization is rapidly lost in a condensin-dependent manner, and arrays of consecutive 60-kilobase (kb) loops are formed. During prometaphase, ~80-kb inner loops are nested within ~400-kb outer loops. The loop array acquires a helical arrangement with consecutive loops emanating from a central “spiral staircase” condensin scaffold. The size of helical turns progressively increases to ~12 megabases during prometaphase. Acute depletion of condensin I or II shows that nested loops form by differential action of the two condensins, whereas condensin II is required for helical winding.

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