A research team of scientists from EMBL Grenoble and the IGBMC in Strasbourg, France, have, for the first time, described in molecular detail the architecture of the central scaffold of TFIID: the human protein complex essential for transcription from DNA to mRNA. The study, published today in Nature, opens new perspectives in the study of transcription and of the structure and mechanism of other large multi-protein assemblies involved in gene regulation.
By controlling the transcription of DNA into messenger RNA, TFIID forms the cornerstone of the machinery that controls gene expression in our cells. Despite its crucial role, very little was known about its architecture. TFIID is present at very low levels in cells, and it is a very large protein complex made of 20 subunits: this combination largely prevented previous attempts to purify it and decipher its structure and function in molecular detail. Even the most advanced methods for recombinant protein production met their limits when trying to produce its various subunits in the right proportions.
The solution to this bottleneck came from studying the strategy certain viruses, such as Coronaviruses, use when they replicate: they produce very long protein chains that are then divided into individual proteins. Mimicking this technique led to highly abundant and correctly assembled complexes of the core scaffold of TFIID (comprising 10 subunits), which could be purified and analysed at high resolution by combining electron microscopy and data from X-ray crystallography.