Multiple intrinsically disordered sequences alter DNA binding by the homeodomain of the Drosophila hox protein ultrabithorax.
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During animal development, distinct tissues, organs, and appendages are specified through differential gene transcription by Hox transcription factors. However, the conserved Hox homeodomains bind DNA with high affinity yet low specificity. We have therefore explored the structure of the Drosophila melanogaster Hox protein Ultrabithorax and the impact of its nonhomeodomain regions on DNA binding properties. Computational and experimental approaches identified several conserved, intrinsically disordered regions outside the homeodomain of Ultrabithorax that impact DNA binding by the homeodomain. Full-length Ultrabithorax bound to target DNA 2.5-fold weaker than its isolated homeodomain. Using N-terminal and C-terminal deletion mutants, we demonstrate that the YPWM region and the disordered microexons (termed the I1 region) inhibit DNA binding approximately 2-fold, whereas the disordered I2 region inhibits homeodomain-DNA interaction a further approximately 40-fold. Binding is restored almost to homeodomain affinity by the mostly disordered N-terminal 174 amino acids (R region) in a length-dependent manner. Both the I2 and R regions contain portions of the activation domain, functionally linking DNA binding and transcription regulation. Given that (i) the I1 region and a portion of the R region alter homeodomain-DNA binding as a function of pH and (ii) an internal deletion within I1 increases Ultrabithorax-DNA affinity, I1 must directly impact homeodomain-DNA interaction energetics. However, I2 appears to indirectly affect DNA binding in a manner countered by the N terminus. The amino acid sequences of I2 and much of the I1 and R regions vary significantly among Ultrabithorax orthologues, potentially diversifying Hox-DNA interactions.