Background: The fine tuning of two features of the bacterial regulatory machinery have been known to contribute to the diversity of gene expression within the same regulon: the sequence of Transcription Factor (TF) binding sites, and their location with respect to promoters. While variations of binding sequences modulate the strength of the interaction between the TF and its binding sites, the distance between binding sites and promoters alter the interaction between the TF and the RNA polymerase (RNAP).
Results: In this paper we estimated the dissociation constants (K(d)) of several E. coli TFs in their interaction with variants of their binding sequences from the scores resulting from aligning them to Positional Weight Matrices. A correlation coefficient of 0.78 was obtained when pooling together sites for different TFs. The theoretically estimated K(d) values were then used, together with the dissociation constants of the RNAP-promoter interaction to analyze activated and repressed promoters. The strength of repressor sites -- i.e., the strength of the interaction between TFs and their binding sites -- is slightly higher than that of activated sites. We explored how different factors such as the variation of binding sequences, the occurrence of more than one binding site, or different RNAP concentrations may influence the promoters' response to the variations of TF concentrations. We found that the occurrence of several regulatory sites bound by the same TF close to a promoter -- if they are bound by the TF in an independent manner -- changes the effect of TF concentrations on promoter occupancy, with respect to individual sites. We also found that the occupancy of a promoter will never be more than half if the RNAP concentration-to-K(p) ratio is 1 and the promoter is subject to repression; or less than half if the promoter is subject to activation. If the ratio falls to 0.1, the upper limit of occupancy probability for repressed drops below 10%; a descent of the limits occurs also for activated promoters.
Conclusion: The number of regulatory sites may thus act as a versatility-producing device, in addition to serving as a source of robustness of the transcription machinery. Furthermore, our results show that the effects of TF concentration fluctuations on promoter occupancy are constrained by RNAP concentrations.