The Drosophila protein SU(VAR)3-7 is essential for fly viability, chromosome structure, and heterochromatin formation. We report that searches in silico and in vitro for homologues of SU(VAR)3-7 were successful within, but not outside, the Drosophila genus. Protein sequence homology between the distant sibling species Drosophila melanogaster and Drosophila virilis is low, except for the general organization of the protein and three conserved motives: seven widely spaced zinc fingers in the N-terminal half and the BESS and BoxA motives in the C-terminal half of the protein. We have undertaken a fine functional dissection of SU(VAR)3-7 in vivo using transgenes encoding truncations of the protein. BESS mediates interaction of SU(VAR)3-7 with itself, and BoxA is required for specific heterochromatin association. Both are necessary for the silencing properties of SU(VAR)3-7. The seven zinc fingers, widely spaced over the N-terminal half of SU(VAR)3-7, are required for binding to polytene chromosomes. One finger is necessary and sufficient to determine the appropriate chromatin association of the C-terminal half of the protein. Conferring a function to each of the conserved motives allows us to better understand the mode of action of SU(VAR)3-7 in triggering heterochromatin formation and subsequent genomic silencing.
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