The kinetochore, which forms on a specific chromosomal locus called the centromere, mediates interactions between the chromosome and the spindle during mitosis and meiosis. Abnormal chromosome rearrangements and/or neocentromere formation can cause the presence of multiple centromeres on a single chromosome, which results in chromosome breakage or cell cycle arrest. Analyses of artificial dicentric chromosomes suggested that the activity of the centromere is regulated epigenetically; on some stably maintained dicentric chromosomes, one of the centromeres no longer functions as a platform for kinetochore formation, although the DNA sequence remains intact. Such epigenetic centromere inactivation occurs in cells of various eukaryotes harbouring ‘regional centromeres’, such as those of maize, fission yeast and humans, suggesting that the position of the active centromere is determined by epigenetic markers on a chromosome rather than the nucleotide sequence. Our recent findings in fission yeast revealed that epigenetic centromere inactivation consists of two steps: disassembly of the kinetochore initiates inactivation and subsequent heterochromatinization prevents revival of the inactivated centromere. Kinetochore disassembly followed by heterochromatinization is also observed in normal senescent human cells. Thus epigenetic centromere inactivation may not only stabilize abnormally generated dicentric chromosomes, but also be part of an intrinsic mechanism regulating cell proliferation.

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