Transient non-specific DNA binding dominates the target search of bacterial DNA-binding proteins

Mol Cell. 2021 Apr 1;81(7):1499-1514.e6. doi: 10.1016/j.molcel.2021.01.039. Epub 2021 Feb 22.


Despite their diverse biochemical characteristics and functions, all DNA-binding proteins share the ability to accurately locate their target sites among the vast excess of non-target DNA. Toward identifying universal mechanisms of the target search, we used single-molecule tracking of 11 diverse DNA-binding proteins in living Escherichia coli. The mobility of these proteins during the target search was dictated by DNA interactions rather than by their molecular weights. By generating cells devoid of all chromosomal DNA, we discovered that the nucleoid is not a physical barrier for protein diffusion but significantly slows the motion of DNA-binding proteins through frequent short-lived DNA interactions. The representative DNA-binding proteins (irrespective of their size, concentration, or function) spend the majority (58%-99%) of their search time bound to DNA and occupy as much as ∼30% of the chromosomal DNA at any time. Chromosome crowding likely has important implications for the function of all DNA-binding proteins.

Keywords: Chromosome-crowding; chromosome-free cells; single-molecule tracking; target search of bacterial DNA-binding proteins.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • DNA, Bacterial / genetics
  • DNA, Bacterial / metabolism*
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / genetics
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / metabolism*
  • Escherichia coli / genetics
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism*
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / genetics
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / metabolism*


  • DNA, Bacterial
  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • Escherichia coli Proteins