Transcription factors (TFs) bind to specific sequences in DNA to regulate transcription. Despite extensive measurements of TFs' dissociation constant (Kd) in vitro, their apparent Kdin vivo are usually unknown. LacI, a bacterial TF, is often used to artificially recruit proteins onto eukaryotic genomes. As LacI binds tightly to its recognition site (LacO) in vitro with a Kd about 10 picomolar (pM), it is often assumed that LacI also has high affinity to LacO in vivo. In this work, we measured LacI binding in living yeast cells using a fluorescent repressor operator system and found an apparent Kd of ∼0.6 μM, four orders of magnitude higher than that in vitro. By genetically altering (i) GFP-LacI structure, (ii) GFP-LacI stability, (iii) chromosome accessibility and (iv) LacO sequence, we reduced the apparent Kd to <10 nM. It turns out that the GFP tagging location and the fusion protein stability have a large effect on LacI binding, but surprisingly, chromosome accessibility only plays a mild role. These findings contribute to our quantitative understanding of the features that affect the apparent Kd of TF in cells. They also provide guidance for future design of more specific chromosomal recruitment through high-affinity TFs.
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