DNA supercoiling: a regulatory signal for the λ repressor

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Oct 28;111(43):15402-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1320644111. Epub 2014 Oct 15.


Topoisomerases, polymerases, and the chirality introduced by the binding of histones or nucleoid-associated proteins affect DNA supercoiling in vivo. However, supercoiling is not just a by-product of DNA metabolism. Supercoiling is an indicator of cell health, it modifies the accessibility of chromatin, and coordinates the transcription of genes. This suggests that regulatory, protein-mediated loops in DNA may sense supercoiling of the genome in which they are embedded. The λ repressor (CI) maintains the quiescent (lysogenic) transcriptome of bacteriophage λ in infected Escherichia coli. CI-mediated looping prevents overexpression of the repressor protein to preserve sensitivity to conditions that trigger virulence (lysis). Experiments were performed to assess how well the CI-mediated DNA loop traps superhelicity and determine whether supercoiling enhances CI-mediated DNA looping. CI oligomers partitioned plasmids into topological domains and prevented the passage of supercoiling between them. Furthermore, in single DNA molecules stretched and twisted with magnetic tweezers, levels of superhelical density confined in CI-mediated DNA loops ranged from -15% or +11%. Finally, in DNA under tensions that may occur in vivo, supercoiling lowered the free energy of loop formation and was essential for DNA looping. Supercoiling-enhanced looping can influence the maintenance of lysogeny in the λ repressor system; it can encode sensitivity to the energy level of the cell and creates independent topological domains of distinct superhelical density.

Keywords: DNA looping; DNA supercoiling; bacteriophage λ repressor; magnetic tweezer; transcription.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Base Pairing
  • DNA, Superhelical / chemistry
  • DNA, Superhelical / metabolism*
  • Diffusion
  • Elasticity
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation
  • Repressor Proteins / metabolism*
  • Thermodynamics
  • Viral Regulatory and Accessory Proteins / metabolism*


  • DNA, Superhelical
  • Repressor Proteins
  • Viral Regulatory and Accessory Proteins
  • phage repressor proteins