Definition of Heterochromatin

Heterochromatin is a tightly packed form of DNA, which comes in multiple varieties. These varieties lie on a continuum between the two extremes of constitutive and facultative heterochromatin. Both play a role in the expression of genes. Because it is tightly packed, it was thought to be inaccessible to polymerases and therefore not transcribed, however according to Volpe et al. (2002), and many other papers since, much of this DNA is in fact transcribed, but it is continuously turned over via RNA-induced transcriptional silencing (RITS).

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Constitutive heterochromatin can affect the genes near itself (position-effect variegation). It is usually repetitive and forms structural functions such as centromeres or telomeres, in addition to acting as an attractor for other gene-expression or repression signals. Facultative heterochromatin is the result of genes that are silenced through a mechanism such as histone deacetylation or Piwi-interacting RNA (piRNA) through RNAi. It is not repetitive and shares the compact structure of constitutive heterochromatin. However, under specific developmental or environmental signaling cues, it can lose its condensed structure and become transcriptionally active. Heterochromatin has been associated with the di- and tri-methylation of H3K9 in certain portions of the genome.