While an extensive body of knowledge has accumulated on the structures of transcription factors, DNA and their complexes from both NMR and crystallography, much less is known at a molecular level regarding the mechanisms whereby transcription factors locate their specific DNA target site within an overwhelming sea of non-specific DNA sites. Indirect kinetic data suggested that three processes are involved in the search procedure: jumping by dissociation of the protein from the DNA followed by re-association at another site, direct transfer from one DNA molecule or segment to another, and one-dimensional sliding. In this brief perspective I summarize recent NMR developments from our laboratory that have permitted direct characterization of the species and molecular mechanisms involved in the target search process, including the detection of highly transient sparsely-populated states. The main tool in these studies involves the application of paramagnetic relaxation enhancement, supplemented by z-exchange spectroscopy, lineshape analysis and residual dipolar couplings. These studies led to the first direct demonstration of rotation-coupled sliding of a protein along the DNA and the direct transfer of a protein from one DNA molecule to another without dissociating into free solution.
© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. (outside the USA) 2011