Transcription factors activate their target genes by binding to specific response elements. Many transcription factor families evolved from a common ancestor by gene duplication and subsequent divergent evolution. Members of the p53 family, which play key roles in cell-cycle control and development, share conserved DNA binding and oligomerisation domains but exhibit distinct functions. In this study, the molecular basis of the functional divergence of related transcription factors was investigated.
We characterised the DNA-binding specificity and oligomerisation properties of human p53, p63 and p73, as well as p53 from other organisms using novel biophysical approaches. All p53 family members bound DNA cooperatively as tetramers with high affinity. Despite structural differences in the oligomerisation domain, the dissociation constants of the tetramers was in the low nanomolar range for all family members, indicating that the strength of tetramerisation was evolutionarily conserved. However, small differences in the oligomerisation properties were observed, which may play a regulatory role. Intriguingly, the DNA-binding specificity of p53 family members was highly conserved even for evolutionarily distant species. Additionally, DNA recognition was only weakly affected by CpG methylation. Prediction of p53/p63/p73 binding sites in the genome showed almost complete overlap between the different homologs.
Diversity of biological function of p53 family members is not reflected in differences in sequence-specific DNA binding. Hence, additional specificity factors must exist, which allowed the acquisition of novel functions during evolution while preserving original roles.