The coloration of tortoiseshell cats is a visible manifestation of X-inactivation. The black and orange alleles of a fur coloration gene reside on the X chromosome. For any given patch of fur, the inactivation of an X chromosome that carries one gene results in the fur color of the other, active gene.
Nucleus of a female cell. Top: Both X-chromosomes are detected, by FISH. Bottom: The same nucleus stained with a DNA stain (DAPI). The Barr body is indicated by the arrow, it identifies the inactive X (Xi).
An interphase female human fibroblast cell.[1] Arrows point to sex chromatin on DNA (DAPI) in cell nucleus(left), and to the corresponding X chromatin (right).
Left: DNA (DAPI)-stained nucleus. Arrow indicates the location of Barr body(Xi). Right: DNA associated histones protein detected

X-inactivation (also called lyonization) is a process by which one of the two copies of the X chromosome present in female mammals is inactivated. The inactive X chromosome is silenced by packaging into transcriptionally inactive heterochromatin. X-inactivation occurs so that the female, with two X chromosomes, does not have twice as many X chromosome gene products as the male, which only possess a single copy of the X chromosome (see dosage compensation). The choice of which X chromosome will be inactivated is random in placental mammals such as mice and humans, but once an X chromosome is inactivated it will remain inactive throughout the lifetime of the cell and its descendants in the organism. Unlike the random X-inactivation in placental mammals, inactivation in marsupials applies exclusively to the paternally derived X chromosome.



In 1959 Susumu Ohno showed that the two X-chromosomes of mammals were different: one appeared like the autosomes; the other was condensed and heterochromatic.[2] This finding suggested, independently to two groups of investigators, that one of the X-chromosomes underwent inactivation. In 1961, Mary Lyon proposed the random inactivation of one female X chromosome to explain the mottled phenotype of female mice heterozygous for coat color genes.[3] The Lyon hypothesis also accounted for the findings that one copy of the X chromosome in female cells was highly condensed, and that mice with only one copy of the X chromosome developed as fertile females. Ernest Beutler, studying heterozygous females for Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency, independently proposed that there were two red cell populations of erythrocytes in such heterozygotes: deficient cells and normal cells.[4]



All mouse cells undergo an early, imprinted inactivation of the paternally-derived X chromosome in two-cell or four-cell stage embryos.[5][6][7] The extraembryonic tissues (which give rise to the placenta and other tissues supporting the embryo) retain this early imprinted inactivation, and thus only the maternal X chromosome is active in these tissues.

In the early blastocyst, this initial, imprinted X-inactivation is reversed in the cells of the inner cell mass (which give rise to the embryo), and in these cells both X chromosomes become active again. Each of these cells then independently and randomly inactivates one copy of the X chromosome.[7] This inactivation event is irreversible during the lifetime of the cell, so all the descendants of a cell which inactivated a particular X chromosome will also inactivate that same chromosome. This phenomenon, which can be observed in the coloration of calico cats when females are heterozygous for the X-linked gene, should not be confused with mosaicism, which is a term that specifically refers to differences in the genotype of various cell populations in the same individual; X-inactivation, which is an epigenetic change that results in a different phenotype, is not a change at the genotypic level. For an individual cell or lineage the inactivation is therefore skewed or 'non-random' this can give rise to mild symptoms in female 'carriers' of X-linked genetic disorders.[8]

X-inactivation is reversed in the female germline, so that all oocytes contain an active X chromosome.

Selection of one active X chromosome

Normal females possess two X chromosomes, and in any given cell one chromosome will be active (designated as Xa) and one will be inactive (Xi). However, studies of individuals with extra copies of the X chromosome show that in cells with more than two X chromosomes there is still only one Xa, and all the remaining X chromosomes are inactivated. This indicates that the default state of the X chromosome in females is inactivation, but one X chromosome is always selected to remain active.

It is hypothesized that there is an autosomally-encoded 'blocking factor' which binds to the X chromosome and prevents its inactivation. The model postulates that there is a limiting blocking factor, so once the available blocking factor molecule binds to one X chromosome the remaining X chromosome(s) are not protected from inactivation. This model is supported by the existence of a single Xa in cells with many X chromosomes and by the existence of two active X chromosomes in cell lines with twice the normal number of autosomes.

Sequences at the X inactivation center (XIC), present on the X chromosome, control the silencing of the X chromosome. The hypothetical blocking factor is predicted to bind to sequences within the XIC.

Chromosomal component

The X-inactivation center (XIC) on the X chromosome is necessary and sufficient to cause X-inactivation. Chromosomal translocations which place the XIC on an autosome lead to inactivation of the autosome, and X chromosomes lacking the XIC are not inactivated.

The XIC contains two non-translated RNA genes, Xist and Tsix, which are involved in X-inactivation. The XIC also contains binding sites for both known and unknown regulatory proteins.

Xist and Tsix RNAs

The X-inactive specific transcript (Xist) gene encodes a large non-coding RNA that is responsible for mediating the specific silencing of the X chromosome from which it is transcribed.[9] The inactive X chromosome is coated by Xist RNA,[10] whereas the Xa is not. The Xist gene is the only gene which is expressed from the Xi but not from the Xa. X chromosomes which lack the Xist gene cannot be inactivated.[11] Artificially placing and expressing the Xist gene on another chromosome leads to silencing of that chromosome.[12][13]

Prior to inactivation, both X chromosomes weakly express Xist RNA from the Xist gene. During the inactivation process, the future Xa ceases to express Xist, whereas the future Xi dramatically increases Xist RNA production. On the future Xi, the Xist RNA progressively coats the chromosome, spreading out from the XIC[12]; the Xist RNA does not localize to the Xa. The silencing of genes along the Xi occurs soon after coating by Xist RNA.

Like Xist, the Tsix gene encodes a large RNA which is not believed to encode a protein. The Tsix RNA is transcribed antisense to Xist, meaning that the Tsix gene overlaps the Xist gene and is transcribed on the opposite strand of DNA from the Xist gene.[14] Tsix is a negative regulator of Xist; X chromosomes lacking Tsix expression (and thus having high levels of Xist transcription) are inactivated much more frequently than normal chromosomes.

Like Xist, prior to inactivation, both X chromosomes weakly express Tsix RNA from the Tsix gene. Upon the onset of X-inactivation, the future Xi ceases to express Tsix RNA (and increases Xist expression), whereas Xa continues to express Tsix for several days.


The inactive X chromosome does not express the majority of its genes, unlike the active X chromosome. This is due to the silencing of the Xi by repressive heterochromatin, which coats the Xi DNA and prevents the expression of most genes.

Compared to the Xa, the Xi has high levels of DNA methylation, low levels of histone acetylation, low levels of histone H3 lysine-4 methylation, and high levels of histone H3 lysine-9 methylation, all of which are associated with gene silencing.[15] Additionally, a histone variant called macroH2A is exclusively found on nucleosomes along the Xi.[16][17]

Barr bodies

DNA packaged in heterochromatin, such as the Xi, is more condensed than DNA packaged in euchromatin, such as the Xa. The inactive X forms a discrete body within the nucleus called a Barr body.[18] The Barr body is generally located on the periphery of the nucleus, is late replicating within the cell cycle, and, as it contains the Xi, contains heterochromatin modifications and the Xist RNA.

Expressed genes on the inactive X chromosome

A fraction of the genes along the X chromosome escape inactivation on the Xi. The Xist gene is expressed at high levels on the Xi and is not expressed on the Xa.[19] Other genes are expressed equally from the Xa and Xi; mice contain few genes which escape silencing whereas up to a quarter of human X chromosome genes are expressed from the Xi.[20] Many of these genes occur in clusters.

Many of the genes which escape inactivation are present along regions of the X chromosome which, unlike the majority of the X chromosome, contain genes also present on the Y chromosome. These regions are termed pseudoautosomal regions, as individuals of either sex will receive two copies of every gene in these regions (like an autosome), unlike the majority of genes along the sex chromosomes. Since individuals of either sex will receive two copies of every gene in a pseudoautosomal region, no dosage compensation is needed for females, so it is postulated that these regions of DNA have evolved mechanisms to escape X-inactivation. The genes of pseudoautosomal regions of the Xi do not have the typical modifications of the Xi and have little Xist RNA bound.

The existence of genes along the inactive X which are not silenced explains the defects in humans with abnormal numbers of the X chromosome, such as Turner syndrome (X0) or Klinefelter syndrome (XXY). Theoretically, X-inactivation should eliminate the differences in gene dosage between affected individuals and individuals with a normal chromosome complement, but in affected individuals the dosage of these non-silenced genes will differ as they escape X-inactivation.

Uses in experimental biology

Stanley Michael Gartler used X chromosome inactivation to demonstrate the clonal origin of cancers. Examining normal tissues and tumors from females heterozygous for isoenzymes of the sex-linked G6PD gene demonstrated that tumor cells from such individuals express only one form of G6PD, whereas normal tissues are composed of a nearly equal mixture of cells expressing the two different phenotypes. This pattern suggests that a single cell, and not a population, grows into a cancer[21].

See also


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Further reading

Review Article