Metazoan linker histones are essential for development and play crucial roles in organization of chromatin, modification of epigenetic states and regulation of genetic activity. Vertebrates express multiple linker histone H1 isoforms, which may function redundantly. In contrast, H1 isoforms are not present in Dipterans, including D. melanogaster, except for an embryo-specific, distantly related dBigH1. Here we show that Drosophila BEN domain protein Elba2, which is expressed in early embryos and was hypothesized to have insulator-specific functions, can compensate for the loss of H1 in vivo. Although the Elba2 gene is not essential, its mutation causes a disruption of normal internucleosomal spacing of chromatin and reduced nuclear compaction in syncytial embryos. Elba2 protein is distributed ubiquitously in polytene chromosomes and strongly colocalizes with H1. In H1-depleted animals, ectopic expression of Elba2 rescues the increased lethality and ameliorates abnormalities of chromosome architecture and heterochromatin functions. We also demonstrate that ectopic expression of BigH1 similarly complements the deficiency of H1 protein. Thus, in organisms that do not express redundant H1 isoforms, the structural and biological functions performed by canonical linker histones in later development, may be shared in early embryos by weakly homologous proteins, such as BigH1, or even unrelated, non-homologous proteins, such as Elba2.
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