Transcription factors (TF) can change shape to bind and recognize DNA, shifting the energy landscape from a weak binding, rapid search mode to a higher affinity recognition mode. However, the mechanism(s) driving this conformational change remains unresolved and in most cases high-resolution structures of the non-specific complexes are unavailable. Here, we investigate the conformational switch of the human mitochondrial transcription termination factor MTERF1, which has a modular, superhelical topology complementary to DNA. Our goal was to characterize the details of the non-specific search mode to complement the crystal structure of the specific binding complex, providing a basis for understanding the recognition mechanism. In the specific complex, MTERF1 binds a significantly distorted and unwound DNA structure, exhibiting a protein conformation incompatible with binding to B-form DNA. In contrast, our simulations of apo MTERF1 revealed significant flexibility, sampling structures with superhelical pitch and radius complementary to the major groove of B-DNA. Docking these structures to B-DNA followed by unrestrained MD simulations led to a stable complex in which MTERF1 was observed to undergo spontaneous diffusion on the DNA. Overall, the data support an MTERF1-DNA binding and recognition mechanism driven by intrinsic dynamics of the MTERF1 superhelical topology.
Hauser, K., Essuman, B., He, Y., Coutsias, E., Garcia-Diaz, M., & Simmerling, C. (2016). A human transcription factor in search mode. Nucleic Acids Research, 44(1), 63–74. https://doi.org/10.1093/nar/gkv1091