Background: The DM domain is a zinc finger-like DNA binding motif first identified in the sexual regulatory proteins Doublesex (DSX) and MAB-3, and is widely conserved among metazoans. DM domain proteins regulate sexual differentiation in at least three phyla and also control other aspects of development, including vertebrate segmentation. Most DM domain proteins share little similarity outside the DM domain. DSX and MAB-3 bind partially overlapping DNA sequences, and DSX has been shown to interact with DNA via the minor groove without inducing DNA bending. DSX and MAB-3 exhibit unusually high DNA sequence specificity relative to other minor groove binding proteins. No detailed analysis of DNA binding by the seven vertebrate DM domain proteins, DMRT1-DMRT7 has been reported, and thus it is unknown whether they recognize similar or diverse DNA sequences.
Results: We used a random oligonucleotide in vitro selection method to determine DNA binding sites for six of the seven proteins. These proteins selected sites resembling that of DSX despite differences in the sequence of the DM domain recognition helix, but they varied in binding efficiency and in preferences for particular nucleotides, and some behaved anomalously in gel mobility shift assays. DMRT1 protein from mouse testis extracts binds the sequence we determined, and the DMRT proteins can bind their in vitro-defined sites in transfected cells. We also find that some DMRT proteins can bind DNA as heterodimers.
Conclusion: Our results suggest that target gene specificity of the DMRT proteins does not derive exclusively from major differences in DNA binding specificity. Instead target specificity may come from more subtle differences in DNA binding preference between different homodimers, together with differences in binding specificity between homodimers versus heterodimers.