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Single-cytosine methylation at W-boxes repels binding of WRKY transcription factors through steric hindrance

Magali Charvin, Thierry Halter, Romain Blanc-Mathieu, Pierre Barraud, Magali Aumont-Nicaise, François Parcy, Lionel Navarro


DNA methylation is an epigenetic mark that fine-tunes gene expression, notably by negatively or positively regulating transcription factor (TF)-DNA binding. In plants, DNA methylation has primarily been shown to inhibit TF-DNA binding. However, little is known about the underlying mechanisms. Here, we show that DNA methylation decreases the binding of several Arabidopsis (Arabidopsis thaliana) WRKY TFs to their genomic regions and their binding sites in vitro. We also provide evidence that DNA methylation at a single cytosine located in a functional core W-box motif repels DNA binding of AtWRKY40 in vitro. Using structural modelling, we further demonstrate that this cytosine interacts through van der Waals contacts with the conserved tyrosine of WRKY DNA binding domains. Importantly, our model predicts steric hindrance when a 5-methyl group is present on this specific cytosine, thereby likely preventing tight binding of WRKY DNA binding domains. Finally, because the WRKY motif and the residues involved in DNA contacts are conserved across Arabidopsis and rice (Oryza sativa) WRKY TFs, we propose that this methylation-dependent WRKY-DNA binding inhibitory mechanism could be widespread across plant species.

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Plant Physiol. 2023 Feb 14 ;kiad069. doi : 10.1093/plphys/kiad069