The roles of differentiation, mitotic activity and intrinsic promoter strength in the maintenance of heterochromatic silencing were investigated during development using an inducible lacZ gene as an in vivo probe. Heterochromatic silencing is initiated at the onset of gastrulation, approximately 1 hour after heterochromatin is first visible cytologically. A high degree of silencing is maintained in the mitotically active imaginal cells from mid-embryogenesis until early third instar larval stage, and extensive relaxation of silencing is tightly associated with the onset of differentiation. Relaxation of silencing can be triggered in vitro by ecdysone. In contrast, timing and extent of silencing at both the initiation and relaxation stages are insensitive to changes in cell cycle activity, and intrinsic promoter strength also does not influence the extent of silencing by heterochromatin. These data suggest that the silencing activity of heterochromatin is developmentally programmed.

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