The sequence-specific transcription factor NF-Y binds the CCAAT box, one of the sequence elements most frequently found in eukaryotic promoters. NF-Y is composed of the NF-YA and NF-YB/NF-YC subunits, the latter two hosting histone-fold domains (HFDs). The crystal structure of NF-Y bound to a 25 bp CCAAT oligonucleotide shows that the HFD dimer binds to the DNA sugar-phosphate backbone, mimicking the nucleosome H2A/H2B-DNA assembly. NF-YA both binds to NF-YB/NF-YC and inserts an α helix deeply into the DNA minor groove, providing sequence-specific contacts to the CCAAT box. Structural considerations and mutational data indicate that NF-YB ubiquitination at Lys138 precedes and is equivalent to H2B Lys120 monoubiquitination, important in transcriptional activation. Thus, NF-Y is a sequence-specific transcription factor with nucleosome-like properties of nonspecific DNA binding and helps establish permissive chromatin modifications at CCAAT promoters. Our findings suggest that other HFD-containing proteins may function in similar ways.
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