Sperm histones (SHs) represent an essential part of the paternally transmitted epigenome, but uncertainty exists about the role of those remaining in non-coding and repetitive DNA. We therefore analyzed the genome-wide distribution of the heterochromatic marker H4K20me3 in human sperm and somatic (K562) cells. To specify the function of SHs, we compared all H4K20me3-containing and -free loci in sperm genome. Sperm and somatic cells possessed a very similar H4K20me3-distribution: H4K20me3 peaks occurred mostly in distal intergenic regions and repetitive gene clusters (in particular genes encoding odorant binding factors and zinc-finger antiviral proteins). In both cell types, H4K20me3 peaks were enriched in LINEs, ERVs, satellite DNA and low complexity repeats. In contrast, H4K20me3-free nucleosomes occurred more frequently in genic regions (in particular promoters, exons, 5’-UTR and 3’-UTR) and were enriched in genes encoding developmental factors (in particular transcription activators and repressors). H4K20me3-free nucleosomes were also detected in substantial quantities in distal intergenic regions and were enriched in SINEs. Thus, evidence suggests that paternally transmitted histones may have a dual purpose: maintenance and regulation of heterochromatin and guidance towards transcription of euchromatin.

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