Despite a great deal of attention over many years, the structural and functional roles of the linker histone H1 remain enigmatic. The earlier concepts of H1 as a general transcriptional inhibitor have had to be reconsidered in the light of experiments demonstrating a minor effect of H1 deletion in unicellular organisms. More recent work analysing the results of depleting H1 in mammals through genetic knockouts of selected H1 subtypes in the mouse has shown that cells and tissues can tolerate a surprisingly low H1 content. One common feature of H1-depleted nuclei is a reduction in nucleosome repeat length (NRL). Moreover, there is a robust linear relationship between H1 stoichiometry and NRL, suggesting an inherent homeostatic mechanism that maintains intranuclear electrostatic balance. It is also clear that the 1 H1 per nucleosome paradigm for higher eukaryotes is the exception rather than the rule. This, together with the high mobility of H1 within the nucleus, prompts a reappraisal of the role of linker histone as an obligatory chromatin architectural protein.
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