Much of our understanding of the process by which enhancers activate transcription has been gained from transient-transfection studies in which the DNA is not assembled with histones and other chromatin proteins as it is in the cell nucleus. To study the activation of a mammalian gene in a natural chromatin context in vivo, we constructed a minichromosome containing the human epsilon-globin gene and portions of the beta-globin locus control region (LCR). The minichromosomes replicate and are maintained at stable copy number in human erythroid cells. Expression of the minichromosomal epsilon-globin gene requires the presence of beta-globin LCR elements in cis, as is the case for the chromosomal gene. We determined the chromatin structure of the epsilon-globin gene in both the active and inactive states. The transcriptionally inactive locus is covered by an array of positioned nucleosomes extending over 1,400 bp. In minichromosomes with a (mu)LCR or DNase I-hypersensitive site 2 (HS2) which actively transcribe the epsilon-globin gene, the nucleosome at the promoter is altered or disrupted while positioning of nucleosomes in the rest of the locus is retained. All or virtually all minichromosomes are simultaneously hypersensitive to DNase I both at the promoter and at HS2. Transcriptional activation and promoter remodeling, as well as formation of the HS2 structure itself, depended on the presence of the NF-E2 binding motif in HS2. The nucleosome at the promoter which is altered upon activation is positioned over the transcriptional elements of the epsilon-globin gene, i.e., the TATA, CCAAT, and CACCC elements, and the GATA-1 site at -165. The simple availability of erythroid transcription factors that recognize these motifs is insufficient to allow expression. As in the chromosomal globin locus, regulation also occurs at the level of chromatin structure. These observations are consistent with the idea that one role of the beta-globin LCR is to maintain promoters free of nucleosomes. The restricted structural change observed upon transcriptional activation may indicate that the LCR need only make a specific contact with the proximal gene promoter to activate transcription
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