X-chromosome inactivation (XCI) is a critical epigenetic mechanism for balancing gene dosage between XY males and XX females in eutherian mammals. A long non-coding RNA (lncRNA), XIST, and its associated proteins orchestrate this multi-step process, resulting in the inheritable silencing of one of the two X-chromosomes in females. The XIST RNA is large and complex, exemplifying the unique challenges associated with the structural and functional analysis of lncRNAs. Recent technological advances in the analysis of macromolecular structure and interactions have enabled us to systematically dissect the XIST ribonucleoprotein complex, which is larger than the ribosome, and its place of action, the inactive X-chromosome. These studies shed light on key mechanisms of XCI, such as XIST coating of the X-chromosome, recruitment of DNA, RNA and histone modification enzymes, and compaction and compartmentalization of the inactive X. Here, we summarize recent studies on XCI, highlight the critical contributions of new technologies and propose a unifying model for XIST function in XCI where modular domains serve as the structural and functional units in both lncRNA-protein complexes and DNA-protein complexes in chromatin.This article is part of the themed issue 'X-chromosome inactivation: a tribute to Mary Lyon'.
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