Eukaryotic cells express transcription factor (TF) paralogues that bind to nearly identical DNA sequences in vitro but bind at different genomic loci and perform different functions in vivo. Predicting how 2 paralogous TFs bind in vivo using DNA sequence alone is an important open problem. Here, we analyzed 2 yeast bHLH TFs, Cbf1p and Tye7p, which have highly similar binding preferences in vitro, yet bind at almost completely nonoverlapping target loci in vivo. We dissected the determinants of specificity for these 2 proteins by making a number of chimeric TFs in which we swapped different domains of Cbf1p and Tye7p and determined the effects on in vivo binding and cellular function. From these experiments, we learned that the Cbf1p dimer achieves its specificity by binding cooperatively with other Cbf1p dimers bound nearby. In contrast, we found that Tye7p achieves its specificity by binding cooperatively with 3 other DNA-binding proteins, Gcr1p, Gcr2p, and Rap1p. Remarkably, most promoters (63%) that are bound by Tye7p do not contain a consensus Tye7p binding site. Using this information, we were able to build simple models to accurately discriminate bound and unbound genomic loci for both Cbf1p and Tye7p. We then successfully reprogrammed the human bHLH NPAS2 to bind Cbf1p in vivo targets and a Tye7p target intergenic region to be bound by Cbf1p. These results demonstrate that the genome-wide binding targets of paralogous TFs can be discriminated using sequence information, and provide lessons about TF specificity that can be applied across the phylogenetic tree.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16143-16152
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number32
StatePublished - Aug 6 2019


  • Gene regulation
  • Transcription factor binding
  • Transcription factor cooperativity


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