TAL Effectors Specificity Stems from Negative Discrimination
Transcription Activator-Like (TAL) effectors are DNA-binding proteins secreted by phytopathogenic bacteria that interfere with native cellular functions by binding to plant DNA promoters. The key element of their architecture is a domain of tandem-repeats with almost identical sequences. Most of the polymorphism is located at two consecutive amino acids termed Repeat Variable Diresidue (RVD). The discovery of a direct link between the RVD composition and the targeted nucleotide allowed the design of TAL-derived DNA-binding tools with programmable specificities that revolutionized the field of genome engineering. Despite structural data, the molecular origins of this specificity as well as the recognition mechanism have remained unclear. Molecular simulations of the recent crystal structures suggest that most of the protein-DNA binding energy originates from non-specific interactions between the DNA backbone and non-variable residues, while RVDs contributions are negligible. Based on dynamical and energetic considerations we postulate that, while the first RVD residue promotes helix breaks - allowing folding of TAL as a DNA-wrapping super-helix - the second provides specificity through a negative discrimination of matches. Furthermore, we propose a simple pharmacophore-like model for the rationalization of RVD-DNA interactions and the interpretation of experimental findings concerning shared affinities and binding efficiencies. The explanatory paradigm presented herein provides a better comprehension of this elegant architecture and we hope will allow for improved designs of TAL-derived biotechnological tools.