Transcription factors (TFs) influence gene expression by binding to DNA, yet experimental data suggests that they also frequently bind regulatory DNA indirectly by interacting with other DNA-bound proteins. Here, we used a data modeling approach to test if such indirect binding by TFs plays a significant role in gene regulation. We first incorporated regulatory function of indirectly bound TFs into a thermodynamics-based model for predicting enhancer-driven expression from its sequence. We then fit the new model to a rich data set comprising hundreds of enhancers and their regulatory activities during mesoderm specification in Drosophila embryogenesis and showed that the newly incorporated mechanism results in significantly better agreement with data. In the process, we derived the first sequence-level model of this extensively characterized regulatory program. We further showed that allowing indirect binding of a TF explains its localization at enhancers more accurately than with direct binding only. Our model also provided a simple explanation of how a TF may switch between activating and repressive roles depending on context.
- Biological sciences
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