The human genome contains about 800 C2H2 zinc finger proteins (ZFPs), and most of them are composed of long arrays of zinc fingers. Standard ZFP recognition model asserts longer finger arrays should recognize longer DNA-binding sites. However, recent experimental efforts to identify in vivo ZFP binding sites contradict this assumption, with many exhibiting short motifs. Here we use ZFY, CTCF, ZIM3, and ZNF343 as examples to address three closely related questions: What are the reasons that impede current motif discovery methods? What are the functions of those seemingly unused fingers and how can we improve the motif discovery algorithms based on long ZFPs' biophysical properties? Using ZFY, we employed a variety of methods and find evidence for 'dependent recognition' where downstream fingers can recognize some previously undiscovered motifs only in the presence of an intact core site. For CTCF, high-throughput measurements revealed its upstream specificity profile depends on the strength of its core. Moreover, the binding strength of the upstream site modulates CTCF's sensitivity to different epigenetic modifications within the core, providing new insight into how the previously identified intellectual disability-causing and cancer-related mutant R567W disrupts upstream recognition and deregulates the epigenetic control by CTCF. Our results establish that, because of irregular motif structures, variable spacing and dependent recognition between sub-motifs, the specificities of long ZFPs are significantly underestimated, so we developed an algorithm, ModeMap, to infer the motifs and recognition models of ZIM3 and ZNF343, which facilitates high-confidence identification of specific binding sites, including repeats-derived elements. With revised concept, technique, and algorithm, we can discover the overlooked specificities and functions of those 'extra' fingers, and therefore decipher their broader roles in human biology and diseases.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5364-5376
Number of pages13
JournalNucleic acids research
Issue number11
StatePublished - Jun 23 2023


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