Substances known as transcription factors often determine how a cell develops, as well as which proteins it produces and in what quantities. Transcription factors bind to a section of DNA and control how strongly a gene in that section is activated. Scientists had previously assumed that gene activity is controlled by the binding strength and the proximity of the binding site to the gene. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin have now discovered that the DNA segment to which a transcription factor binds can assume various spatial arrangements. As a result, it alters the structure of the transcription factor itself and controls its activity. Neighboring DNA segments have a significant impact on transcription factor shape, thus modulating the activity of the gene. The new work was published online on September 1, 2016 in Nature Communications. The open-access article is titled “Sequences Flanking the Core Binding Site Modulate Glucocorticoid Receptor Structure and Activity.” For a car to move, it is not enough for a person to sit in the driver's seat; the driver has to start the engine, press on the accelerator, and engage the transmission. Things work similarly in the cells of our body. Until recently, scientists had suspected that certain proteins only bind to specific sites on the DNA strand, directing the cell's fate in the process. The closer and more tightly they bind to a gene on the DNA, the more active the gene was thought to be. These proteins, known as transcription factors, control the activity of genes.
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