BACKGROUND: The linker histone H1 has a key role in establishing and maintaining higher order chromatin structure and in regulating gene expression. Mammals express up to 11 different H1 variants, with H1.2 and H1.4 being the predominant ones in most somatic cells. Like core histones, H1 has high levels of covalent modifications; however, the full set of modifications and their biological role are largely unknown. RESULTS: In this study, we used a candidate screen to identify enzymes that methylate H1 and to map their corresponding methylation sites. We found that the histone lysine methyltransferases G9a/KMT1C and Glp1/KMT1D methylate H1.2 in vitro and in vivo, and we mapped this novel site to lysine 187 (H1.2K187) in the C-terminus of H1. This H1.2K187 methylation is variant-specific. The main target for methylation by G9a in H1.2, H1.3, H1.5 and H1.0 is in the C-terminus, whereas H1.4 is preferentially methylated at K26 (H1.4K26me) in the N-terminus. We found that the readout of these marks is different; H1.4K26me can recruit HP1, but H1.2K187me cannot. Likewise, JMJD2D/KDM4 only reverses H1.4K26 methylation, clearly distinguishing these two methylation sites. Further, in contrast to C-terminal H1 phosphorylation, H1.2K187 methylation level is steady throughout the cell cycle. CONCLUSIONS: We have characterised a novel methylation site in the C-terminus of H1 that is the target of G9a/Glp1 both in vitro and in vivo. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of variant-specific histone methylation by the same methyltransferases, but with differing downstream readers, thereby supporting the hypothesis of H1 variants having specific functions
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