DNA is a working molecule; it must be replicated when a cell is ready to divide, and it must be “read” to produce the molecules, such as proteins, to carry out the functions of the cell. For this reason, the DNA is protected and packaged in very specific ways. In addition, DNA molecules can be very long. Stretched end-to-end, the DNA molecules in a single human cell would come to a length of about 2 meters. Thus, the DNA for a cell must be packaged in a very ordered way to fit and function within a structure (the cell) that is not visible to the naked eye. The chromosomes of prokaryotes are much simpler than those of eukaryotes in many of their features (Figure 9.6). Most prokaryotes contain a single, circular chromosome that is found in an area in the cytoplasm called the nucleoid.
The size of the genome in one of the most well-studied prokaryotes, Escherichia coli,is 4.6 million base pairs, which would extend a distance of about 1.6 mm if stretched out. So how does this fit inside a small bacterial cell? The DNA is twisted beyond the double helix in what is known as supercoiling. Some proteins are known to be involved in the supercoiling; other proteins and enzymes help in maintaining the supercoiled structure.
Eukaryotes, whose chromosomes each consist of a linear DNA molecule, employ a different type of packing strategy to fit their DNA inside the nucleus (Figure 9.7). At the most basic level, DNA is wrapped around proteins known as histones to form structures called nucleosomes. The DNA is wrapped tightly around the histone core. This nucleosome is linked to the next one by a short strand of DNA that is free of histones. This is also known as the “beads on a string” structure; the nucleosomes are the “beads” and the short lengths of DNA between them are the “string.” The nucleosomes, with their DNA coiled around them, stack compactly onto each other to form a 30-nm–wide fiber. This fiber is further coiled into a thicker and more compact structure. At the metaphase stage of mitosis, when the chromosomes are lined up in the center of the cell, the chromosomes are at their most compacted. They are approximately 700 nm in width, and are found in association with scaffold proteins.
In interphase, the phase of the cell cycle between mitoses at which the chromosomes are decondensed, eukaryotic chromosomes have two distinct regions that can be distinguished by staining. There is a tightly packaged region that stains darkly, and a less dense region. The darkly staining regions usually contain genes that are not active, and are found in the regions of the centromere and telomeres. The lightly staining regions usually contain genes that are active, with DNA packaged around nucleosomes but not further compacted.
Watch this animation (http://openstaxcollege.org/l/DNA_packaging) of DNA packaging.