The intractability of homogeneous a-satellite arrays has impeded understanding of human centromeres. Artificial centromeres are produced from higher-order repeats (HORs) present at centromere edges, although the exact sequences and chromatin conformations of centromere cores remain unknown. We use high-resolution chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) of centromere components followed by clustering of sequence data as an unbiased approach to identify functional centromere sequences. We find that specific dimeric a-satellite units shared by multiple individuals dominate functional human centromeres. We identify two recently homogenized a-satellite dimers that are occupied by precisely positioned CENP-A (cenH3) nucleosomes with two ~100-base pair (bp) DNA wraps in tandem separated by a CENP-B/CENP-C-containing linker, whereas pericentromeric HORs show diffuse positioning. Precise positioning is largely maintained, whereas abundance decreases exponentially with divergence, which suggests that young a-satellite dimers with paired ~100-bp particles mediate evolution of functional human centromeres. Our unbiased strategy for identifying functional centromeric sequences should be generally applicable to tandem repeat arrays that dominate the centromeres of most eukaryotes.
Journal: Science advances