The transport of histones from the cytoplasm to the nucleus of the cell, through the nuclear membrane, is a cellular process that regulates the supply of new histones in the nucleus and is key for DNA replication and transcription. Nuclear import of histones is mediated by proteins of the karyopherin family of nuclear transport receptors. Karyopherins recognize their cargos through linear motifs known as nuclear localization/ export sequences or through folded domains in the cargos. Karyopherins interact with nucleoporins, proteins that form the nuclear pore complex, to promote the translocation of their cargos into the nucleus. When binding to histones, karyopherins not only function as nuclear import receptors but also as chaperones, protecting histones from non-specific interactions in the cytoplasm, in the nuclear pore and possibly in the nucleus. Studies have also suggested that karyopherins might participate in histones deposition into nucleosomes. In this review we describe structural and biochemical studies from the last two decades on how karyopherins recognize and transport the core histone proteins H3, H4, H2A and H2B and the linker histone H1 from the cytoplasm to the nucleus, which karyopherin is the major nuclear import receptor for each of these histones, the oligomeric state of histones during nuclear import and the roles of post-translational modifications, histone-chaperones and RanGTP in regulating these nuclear import pathways.
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