Chromatin is a complex of macromolecules found in cells, consisting of DNA, protein, and RNA. The primary functions of chromatin are 1) to package DNA into a more compact, denser shape, 2) to reinforce the DNA macromolecule to allow mitosis, 3) to prevent DNA damage, and 4) to control gene expression and DNA replication. The primary protein components of chromatin are histones that compact the DNA. Chromatin is only found in eukaryotic cells (cells with defined nuclei). Prokaryotic cells have a different organization of their DNA (the prokaryotic chromosome equivalent is called genophore and is localized within the nucleoid region).
Chromatin’s structure is currently poorly understood despite being subjected to intense investigation. Its structure depends on several factors. The overall structure depends on the stage of the cell cycle. During interphase, the chromatin is structurally loose to allow access to RNA and DNA polymerases that transcribe and replicate the DNA. The local structure of chromatin during interphase depends on the genes present on the DNA. That DNA which codes genes that are actively transcribed (“turned on”) is more loosely packaged and associated with RNA polymerases (referred to as euchromatin) while that DNA which codes inactive genes (“turned off”) is more condensed and associated with structural proteins (heterochromatin). Epigenetic chemical modification of the structural proteins in chromatin also alters the local chromatin structure, in particular chemical modifications of histone proteins by methylation and acetylation. As the cell prepares to divide, i.e. enters mitosis or meiosis, the chromatin packages more tightly to facilitate segregation of the chromosomes during anaphase. During this stage of the cell cycle this makes the individual chromosomes in many cells visible by optical microscope.
In general terms, there are three levels of chromatin organization:
DNA wraps around histone proteins forming nucleosomes; the “beads on a string” structure (euchromatin).
Multiple histones wrap into a 30 nm fibre consisting of nucleosome arrays in their most compact form (heterochromatin). (Definitively established to exist in vitro, the 30-nanometer fibre was not seen in recent X-ray studies of human mitotic chromosomes.)
Higher-level DNA packaging of the 30 nm fibre into the metaphase chromosome (during mitosis and meiosis).
There are, however, many cells that do not follow this organisation. For example, spermatozoa and avian red blood cells have more tightly packed chromatin than most eukaryotic cells, and trypanosomatid protozoa do not condense their chromatin into visible chromosomes for mitosis.