Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2017

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Biology & Biomedical Sciences (Developmental, Regenerative, & Stem Cell Biology)

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Transcription factors (TFs) localize to regulatory regions throughout the genome, where they exert physical or enzymatic control over the transcriptional machinery and regulate expression of target genes. Despite the substantial diversity of TFs found across all kingdoms of life, most belong to a relatively small number of structural families characterized by homologous DNA-binding domains (DBDs). In homologous DBDs, highly-conserved DNA-contacting residues define a characteristic ‘recognition potential’, or the limited sequence space containing high-affinity binding sites. Specificity-determining residues (SDRs) alter DNA binding preferences to further delineate this sequence space between homologous TFs, enabling functional divergence through the recognition of distinct genomic binding sites.

This thesis explores the divergent DNA-binding preferences among dimeric, winged helix-turn-helix (wHTH) TFs belonging to the OmpR sub-family. As the terminal effectors of orthogonal two-component signaling pathways in Escherichia coli, OmpR paralogs bind distinct genomic sequences and regulate the expression of largely non-overlapping gene networks. Using high-throughput SELEX, I discover multiple sources of variation in DNA-binding, including the spacing and orientation of monomer sites as well as a novel binding ‘mode’ with unique half-site preferences (but retaining dimeric architecture). Surprisingly, given the diversity of residues observed occupying positions in contact with DNA, there are only minor quantitative differences in sequence-specificity between OmpR paralogs. Combining phylogenetic, structural, and biological information, I then define a comprehensive set of putative SDRs, which, although distributed broadly across the protein:DNA interface, preferentially localize to the major groove of the DNA helix. Direct specificity profiling of SDR variants reveals that individual SDRs impact local base preferences as well as global structural properties of the protein:DNA complex.

This study demonstrates clearly that OmpR family TFs possess multiple ‘axes of divergence’, including base recognition, dimeric architecture, and structural attributes of the protein:DNA complex. It also provides evidence for a common structural ‘code’ for DNA-binding by OmpR homologues, and demonstrates that surprisingly modest residue changes can enable recognition of highly divergent sequence motifs. Importantly, well-characterized genomic binding sites for many of the TFs in this study diverge substantially from the presented de novo models, and it is unclear how mutations may affect binding in more complex environments. Further analysis using native sequences is required to build combined models of cis- and trans-evolution of two-component regulatory networks.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

James J. Havranek

Committee Members

James B. Skeath, Timothy S. Schedl, Gary D. Stormo, Robi Mitra,


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