Genomic DNA is highly compacted in the nucleus of eukaryotic cells as a nucleoprotein assembly called chromatin. The basic unit of chromatin is the nucleosome, where ~146 base pair increments of the genome are wrapped and compacted around the core histone proteins. Further genomic organization and compaction occur through higher order assembly of nucleosomes. This organization regulates many nuclear processes, and is controlled in part by histone post-transtranslational modifications and chromatin-binding proteins. Mechanisms that regulate the assembly and compaction of the genome remain unclear. Here we show that in the presence of physiologic concentrations of mono- and divalent salts, histone tail-driven interactions drive liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS) of nucleosome arrays, resulting in substantial condensation. Phase separation of nucleosomal arrays is inhibited by histone acetylation, whereas histone H1 promotes phase separation, further compaction, and decreased dynamics within droplets, mirroring the relationship between these modulators and the accessibility of the genome in cells. These results indicate that under physiologically relevant conditions, LLPS is an intrinsic behavior of the chromatin polymer, and suggest a model in which the condensed phase reflects a genomic 'ground state' that can produce chromatin organization and compaction in vivo. The dynamic nature of this state could enable known modulators of chromatin structure, such as post-translational modifications and chromatin binding proteins, to act upon it and consequently control nuclear processes such as transcription and DNA repair. Our data suggest an important role for LLPS of chromatin in the organization of the eukaryotic genome.
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