The Polycomb group of genes in Drosophila are homeotic switch gene regulators that maintain homeotic gene repression through a possible chromatin regulatory mechanism. The Enhancer of Polycomb (E(Pc)) gene of Drosophila is an unusual member of the Polycomb group. Most PcG genes have homeotic phenotypes and are required for repression of homeotic loci, but mutations in E(Pc) exhibit no homeotic transformations and have only a very weak effect on expression of Abd-B. However, mutations in E(Pc) are strong enhancers of mutations in many Polycomb group genes and are also strong suppressors of position-effect variegation, suggesting that E(Pc) may have a wider role in chromatin formation or gene regulation than other Polycomb group genes. E(Pc) was cloned by transposon tagging, and encodes a novel 2023 amino acid protein with regions enriched in glutamine, alanine and asparagine. E(Pc) is expressed ubiquitously in Drosophila embryogenesis. E(Pc) is a chromatin protein, binding to polytene chromosomes at about 100 sites, including the Antennapedia but not the Bithorax complex, 29% of which are shared with Polycomb-binding sites. Surprisingly, E(Pc) was not detected in the heterochromatic chromocenter. This result suggests that E(Pc) has a functional rather than structural role in heterochromatin formation and argues against the heterochromatin model for PcG function. Using homology cloning techniques, we identified a mouse homologue of E(Pc), termed Epc1, a yeast protein that we name EPL1, and as well as additional ESTs from Caenorhabditis elegans, mice and humans. Epc1 shares a long, highly conserved domain in its amino terminus with E(Pc) that is also conserved in yeast, C. elegans and humans. The occurrence of E(Pc) across such divergent species is unusual for both PcG proteins and for suppressors of position-effect variegation, and suggests that E(Pc) has an important role in the regulation of chromatin structure in eukaryotes.

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