Chemical tools to control the activities and interactions of chromatin components have broad impact on our understanding of cellular and disease processes. It is important to accurately identify their molecular effects to inform clinical efforts and interpretations of scientific studies. Chaetocin is a widely used chemical that decreases H3K9 methylation in cells. It is frequently attributed as a specific inhibitor of the histone methyltransferase activities of SUV39H1/SU(VAR)3–9, although prior observations showed chaetocin likely inhibits methyltransferase activity through covalent mechanisms involving its epipolythiodixopiperazine disulfide ‘warhead’ functionality. The continued use of chaetocin in scientific studies may derive from the net effect of reduced H3K9 methylation, irrespective of a direct or indirect mechanism. However, there may be other molecular impacts of chaetocin on SUV39H1 besides inhibition of H3K9 methylation levels that could confound the interpretation of past and future experimental studies. Here, we test a new hypothesis that chaetocin may have an additional downstream impact aside from inhibition of methyltransferase activity. Using a combination of truncation mutants, a yeast two-hybrid system, and direct in vitro binding assays, we show that the human SUV39H1 chromodomain (CD) and HP1 chromoshadow domain (CSD) directly interact. Chaetocin inhibits this binding interaction through its disulfide functionality with some specificity by covalently binding with the CD of SUV39H1, whereas the histone H3–HP1 interaction is not inhibited. Given the key role of HP1 dimers in driving a feedback cascade to recruit SUV39H1 and to establish and stabilize constitutive heterochromatin, this additional molecular consequence of chaetocin should be broadly considered.

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