Characteristics of a PHD Finger Subtype

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Although the plant homeodomain (PHD) finger superfamily is known for its site-specific readoutsof histone tails, the origins of the mechanistic differences in histone H3 readout by different PHD subtypes remain less clear. We show that sequences containing the xCDxCDx motif in the PHD treble clef (xCDxCDx-PHD) constitute a distinct subtype, based on the following observations: (i) the amino acid composition of the binding site is strikingly different from other subtypes due to position-specific enrichment of negatively charged and bulky nonpolar residues, (ii) the binding site positions are mutually and positively correlated, and this correlation is absent in other subtypes, and (iii) there are only small structural deviations, despite low sequence similarity. The xCDxCDx-PHD constitutes ∼20% of the PHD family, and the double PHD fingers (DPFs) are 10% of the total number of xCDxCDx-PHDs. This subtype originated early in the evolution of eukaryotes but has diversified within the metazoan lineage. Despite sequence diversification, the positions of the enriched nonpolar residues, in particular, show very small structural deviations, suggesting critical contributions of nonpolar residues in the binding mechanism of this subtype. Using mutagenesis, we probed the contributions of the binding-site positions enriched in nonpolar residues in four xCDxCDx-PHD proteins and found that they contribute to the tight packing of the H3 residues. This effect may potentially be exploited, as we observed affinity enhancement upon substituting a bulky nonpolar residue at the same binding site in another histone reader. Overall, we present a detailed characterization of PHD subtypes.

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