Forty years of decoding the silence in X-chromosome inactivation
In 1961, Mary Lyon first put forth the hypothesis that one X chromosome is inactivated in each cell of the female mammal. As we enter the new millennium and complete 40 years of study, the field of X-inactivation is rich with ideas and many contrasting viewpoints. This review will focus on the random form of X-inactivation and present the latest views on its mechanism. Much attention has been focused on the genetic parsing of X-chromosome counting, choice, silencing and maintenance. It is now known that counting is functionally distinct from choice and that initiation and establishment of silencing are distinct from maintenance. Since Xist’s seminal discovery 10 years ago, significant progress has been made towards understanding its function. Required only for initiation and establishment, Xist must act within a narrow developmental window, but its precise mode of action remains elusive. The ongoing search for Xist RNA-binding factors and effector proteins for silencing has led to members of the macroH2A family of histone variants. Finally, the recent discovery of Tsix implicates regulation of Xist expression by an antisense mechanism. Required for choice but not counting, Tsix blocks Xist RNA accumulation and hence blocks initiation of silencing on the future active X.