Unfixed chicken erythrocyte chromatin fibers in very low salt have been imaged with a scanning force microscope operating in the tapping mode in air at ambient humidity. These images reveal a three-dimensional organization of the fibers. The planar "zig-zag" conformation is rare, and extended "beads-on-a-string" fibers are seen only in chromatin depleted of histones H1 and H5. Glutaraldehyde fixation reveals very similar structures. Fibers fixed in 10 mM salt appear somewhat more compacted. These results, when compared with modeling studies, suggest that chromatin fibers may exist as irregular three-dimensional arrays of nucleosomes even at low ionic strength.
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