We have developed a procedure for sequential silver staining and in situ hybridization to analyze the relationship between the amount of rDNA present in nucleolar organizer regions, as estimated by in situ hybridization, and their level of expression, as estimated by the silver signal. For simplicity we used cells from the insectivorous mole Talpa occidentalis, which have a single pair of nucleolar organizer regions in chromosome pair 3. The relative content of ribosomal cistrons was also related to the hierarchy of activation of the nucleolar organizer regions present in this chromosomal pair. Statistical analyses demonstrated that both the relative level of expression and the activation hierarchy depended mainly on the number of ribosomal cistrons in nucleolar organizer regions. We propose a functional two-step hypothesis, which is consistent with most known data concerning interchromosomal, intercellular and interindividual variation in a number of plant and animal species, including Talpa occidentalis. In step one, the first available transcription factors bind randomly to the ribosomal promoters, such that larger nucleolar organizer regions are more likely to recruit them. In the second step the remaining transcription factors are recruited in a cooperative way, thus completing activation of one nucleolar organizer region, before the next one becomes active.

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