Euchromatin is a lightly packed form of chromatin (DNA, RNA and protein) that is rich in gene concentration, and is often (but not always) under active transcription. Unlike heterochromatin, it is found in both cells with nuclei (eukaryotes) and cells without nuclei (prokaryotes). Euchromatin comprises the most active portion of the genome within the cell nucleus.
The structure of euchromatin is reminiscent of an unfolded set of beads along a string, wherein those beads represent nucleosomes. Nucleosomes consist of eight proteins known as histones, with approximately 147 base pairs of DNA wound around them; in euchromatin, this wrapping is loose so that the raw DNA may be accessed. Each core histone possesses a `tail' structure, which can vary in several ways; it is thought that these variations act as "master control switches," which determine the overall arrangement of the chromatin. In particular, it is believed that the presence of methylated lysine 4 on the histone tails acts as a general marker for euchromatin.
In general, euchromatin appears as light-colored bands when stained in GTG banding and observed under an optical microscope, in contrast to heterochromatin, which stains darkly. This lighter staining is due to the less compact structure of euchromatin. The basic structure of euchromatin is an elongated, open, 10nm microfibril, as noted by electron microscopy. In prokaryotes, euchromatin is the only form of chromatin present; this indicates that the heterochromatin structure evolved later along with the nucleus, possibly as a mechanism to handle increasing genome size.
Euchromatin participates in the active transcription of DNA to mRNA products. The unfolded structure allows gene regulatory proteins and RNA polymerase complexes to bind to the DNA sequence, which can then initiate the transcription process. Not all euchromatin is necessarily transcribed, but in general that which is not is transformed into heterochromatin to protect the genes while they are not in use. There is therefore a direct link to how actively productive a cell is and the amount of euchromatin that can be found in its nucleus. It is thought that the cell uses transformation from euchromatin into heterochromatin as a method of controlling gene expression and replication, since such processes behave differently on densely compacted chromatin, known as the `accessibility hypothesis'. One example of constitutive euchromatin that is 'always turned on' is housekeeping genes, which code for the proteins needed for basic functions of cell survival.
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