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FEMS Microbiol Rev. 2005 Apr;29(2):231-62.

The many faces of the helix-turn-helix domain: transcription regulation and beyond.

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  • 1National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Building 38A, Room 5N50, Bethesda, MD 20894, USA.


The helix-turn-helix (HTH) domain is a common denominator in basal and specific transcription factors from the three super-kingdoms of life. At its core, the domain comprises of an open tri-helical bundle, which typically binds DNA with the 3rd helix. Drawing on the wealth of data that has accumulated over two decades since the discovery of the domain, we present an overview of the natural history of the HTH domain from the viewpoint of structural analysis and comparative genomics. In structural terms, the HTH domains have developed several elaborations on the basic 3-helical core, such as the tetra-helical bundle, the winged-helix and the ribbon-helix-helix type configurations. In functional terms, the HTH domains are present in the most prevalent transcription factors of all prokaryotic genomes and some eukaryotic genomes. They have been recruited to a wide range of functions beyond transcription regulation, which include DNA repair and replication, RNA metabolism and protein-protein interactions in diverse signaling contexts. Beyond their basic role in mediating macromolecular interactions, the HTH domains have also been incorporated into the catalytic domains of diverse enzymes. We discuss the general domain architectural themes that have arisen amongst the HTH domains as a result of their recruitment to these diverse functions. We present a natural classification, higher-order relationships and phyletic pattern analysis of all the major families of HTH domains. This reconstruction suggests that there were at least 6-11 different HTH domains in the last universal common ancestor of all life forms, which covered much of the structural diversity and part of the functional versatility of the extant representatives of this domain. In prokaryotes the total number of HTH domains per genome shows a strong power-equation type scaling with the gene number per genome. However, the HTH domains in two-component signaling pathways show a linear scaling with gene number, in contrast to the non-linear scaling of HTH domains in single-component systems and sigma factors. These observations point to distinct evolutionary forces in the emergence of different signaling systems with HTH transcription factors. The archaea and bacteria share a number of ancient families of specific HTH transcription factors. However, they do not share any orthologous HTH proteins in the basal transcription apparatus. This differential relationship of their basal and specific transcriptional machinery poses an apparent conundrum regarding the origins of their transcription apparatus.

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