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Annu Rev Biochem. 2010;79:233-69. doi: 10.1146/annurev-biochem-060408-091030.

Origins of specificity in protein-DNA recognition.

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Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, Columbia University, New York, NY 10032, USA.


Specific interactions between proteins and DNA are fundamental to many biological processes. In this review, we provide a revised view of protein-DNA interactions that emphasizes the importance of the three-dimensional structures of both macromolecules. We divide protein-DNA interactions into two categories: those when the protein recognizes the unique chemical signatures of the DNA bases (base readout) and those when the protein recognizes a sequence-dependent DNA shape (shape readout). We further divide base readout into those interactions that occur in the major groove from those that occur in the minor groove. Analogously, the readout of the DNA shape is subdivided into global shape recognition (for example, when the DNA helix exhibits an overall bend) and local shape recognition (for example, when a base pair step is kinked or a region of the minor groove is narrow). Based on the >1500 structures of protein-DNA complexes now available in the Protein Data Bank, we argue that individual DNA-binding proteins combine multiple readout mechanisms to achieve DNA-binding specificity. Specificity that distinguishes between families frequently involves base readout in the major groove, whereas shape readout is often exploited for higher resolution specificity, to distinguish between members within the same DNA-binding protein family.

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