Natural depletion of histone H1 in sex cells causes DNA demethylation, heterochromatin decondensation and transposon activation
Transposable elements (TEs), the movement of which can damage the genome, are epigenetically silenced in eukaryotes. Intriguingly, TEs are activated in the sperm companion cell – vegetative cell (VC) – of the flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana. However, the extent and mechanism of this activation are unknown. Here we show that about 100 heterochromatic TEs are activated in VCs, mostly by DEMETER-catalyzed DNA demethylation. We further demonstrate that DEMETER access to some of these TEs is permitted by the natural depletion of linker histone H1 in VCs. Ectopically expressed H1 suppresses TEs in VCs by reducing DNA demethylation and via a methylation-independent mechanism. We demonstrate that H1 is required for heterochromatin condensation in plant cells and show that H1 overexpression creates heterochromatic foci in the VC progenitor cell. Taken together, our results demonstrate that the natural depletion of H1 during male gametogenesis facilitates DEMETER-directed DNA demethylation, heterochromatin relaxation, and TE activation.