Saccharomyces cerevisiae provides a well-studied model system for heritable silent chromatin, in which a nonhistone protein complex--the SIR complex--represses genes by spreading in a sequence-independent manner, much like heterochromatin in higher eukaryotes. The ability to study mutations in histones and to screen genome-wide for mutations that impair silencing has yielded an unparalleled depth of detail about this system. Recent advances in the biochemistry and structural biology of the SIR-chromatin complex bring us much closer to a molecular understanding of how Sir3 selectively recognizes the deacetylated histone H4 tail and demethylated histone H3 core. The existence of appropriate mutants has also shown how components of the silencing machinery affect physiological processes beyond transcriptional repression.
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