Background: We and others have suggested that pioneer activity — a transcription factor’s (TF’s) ability to bind and open inaccessible loci — is not a qualitative trait limited to a select class of pioneer TFs. We hypothesize that most TFs display pioneering activity that depends on the TF concentration and the motif content at their target loci. Results: Here, we present a quantitative in vivo measure of pioneer activity that captures the relative difference in a TF’s ability to bind accessible versus inaccessible DNA. The metric is based on experiments that use CUT&Tag to measure the binding of doxycycline-inducible TFs. For each location across the genome, we determine the concentration of doxycycline required for a TF to reach half-maximal occupancy; lower concentrations reflect higher affinity. We propose that the relative difference in a TF’s affinity between ATAC-seq labeled accessible and inaccessible binding sites is a measure of its pioneer activity. We estimate binding affinities at tens of thousands of genomic loci for the endodermal TFs FOXA1 and HNF4A and show that HNF4A has stronger pioneer activity than FOXA1. We show that both FOXA1 and HNF4A display higher binding affinity at inaccessible sites with more copies of their respective motifs. The quantitative analysis of binding suggests different modes of binding for FOXA1, including an anti-cooperative mode of binding at certain accessible loci. Conclusions: Our results suggest that relative binding affinities are reasonable measures of pioneer activity and support the model wherein most TFs have some degree of context-dependent pioneer activity.

Original languageEnglish
Article number221
JournalGenome biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • FOXA1
  • Genomics
  • HNF4A
  • Pioneer activity
  • Pioneer factor
  • Transcription factor binding


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