MADS specificity: Unravelling the dual function of the MADS domain protein FRUITFULL

Hilda van Mourik

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Encrypted in the DNA lays most information needed for the development of an organism. The transcription of this information into precise patterns of gene activity results in the development of different cell types, organs, and developmental structures. Moreover, transcriptional regulation enables an organism to respond to changing environmental conditions. Essential for the regulation of transcription are DNA-binding transcription factors (TFs). TFs bind the DNA in a sequence-specific fashion. Upon binding of a TF to its DNA binding site, TFs typically activate or repress the transcription of nearby genes. To better understand transcriptional regulation it is essential to study DNA binding specificity of TFs.

In the last decades, technological advances allowed the development of high-throughput methods to study protein-DNA interactions. Traditional in vitro methods study one or a few interactions, while new high-throughput methods can determine TF specificity by measuring relative DNA-binding affinities against a large collection or even all possible binding sites. Several high-throughput techniques to study TF-DNA interactions are discussed in Chapter 1 of this thesis. These new technologies and methods resulted in a fast growing number of studies on DNA binding specificities of TFs, expanding the knowledge about TF specificity. A review on the current knowledge of TF DNA binding specificity is described in Chapter 1.

One aspect that influences DNA binding of TFs are differences in ability to form protein-protein interactions. The aim of this thesis was to study the role of protein-protein interactions in determining DNA binding specificity of a developmental regulatory MADS domain TF in Arabidopsis thaliana. While the members of the MADS-box protein family have many, diverse in vivo functions, all members bind in vitro to a 10-bp motif called the CArG-box. Moreover, studies demonstrated that closely related MADS proteins are expressed in the same cells, therefore encountering the same DNA accessibility and DNA methylation patterns, but bind different in vivo targets. Interestingly, MADS domain proteins bind DNA obligatorily as homo- and heterodimers and the interactions between MADS domain proteins are highly protein specific. Hence, MADS domain proteins are a perfect model system to study the influence of intra-family protein interactions on DNA binding specificity.

To study the influence of protein-protein interactions on DNA-binding specificity this work focusses on one specific MADS domain protein, FRUITFULL (FUL). FUL is expressed at two stages during flower development and, in both stages FUL has highly diverse functions. In Chapter 2 we demonstrate using RNA-seq that FUL regulates different sets of target genes in the two stages. Moreover, using ChIP-seq we show that FUL genomic DNA binding is partly tissue-specific. These tissue-specifically bound and regulated genes are in line with the known dual functions of FUL during development. Interestingly, using protein complex immunoprecipitation for the two studied tissues/stages we show that the interactions of FUL with other MADS domain proteins are also tissue-specific. To determine whether the tissue-specific in vivo binding pattern are due to differences in DNA binding specificity of the FUL-MADS dimers, we studied the DNA binding specificities of the different protein complexes using SELEX-seq. The SELEX-seq results show that although all tested dimers preferably bind the canonical binding motif of MADS domain proteins, different dimers have different preferences for nucleotides within and surrounding the canonical binding site. Hence, different MADS domain dimers have different in vitro DNA binding specificities. By mapping the SELEX-seq affinities to the genome we were able to compare these results with in vivo tissue-specific ChIP-seq data. This analysis revealed a strong correlation between tissue-specific dimer affinities and tissue-specific genomic binding sites of FUL. Hence, we show that the choice of MADS dimerization partner influences DNA binding specificity, highlighting the role of intra-family protein interactions in defining DNA binding specificity.

To allow other researchers to determine genome-wide DNA binding of TFs Chapter 3 provides a step-by-step guide for ChIP-seq experiments and computational analysis. The protocol is designed for wet-lab biologists to perform ChIP-seq experiments and analyse their own ChIP-seq data.

Using the genome-wide DNA binding patterns determined by ChIP-seq, Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 take a more detailed look at some of the genes directly bound by FUL. In Chapter 4, we demonstrate a connection between developmentally and environmentally regulated growth programs. We studied a gene directly bound by FUL in pistil tissue, SMALL AUXIN UPREGULATED RNA 10 (SAUR10)SAUR10 expression is regulated by FUL in multiple tissues, among others cauline leaves, stems, and branches. The results show that the expression of SAUR10 at the abaxial side of branches is influenced by a combination of environmental and developmental regulated growth programs: hormones, light conditions, and FUL binding. This spatial regulation possibly affects the angle between the side branches and the main inflorescence stem. Additionally, we discuss several other FUL target genes involved in hormone pathways and light conditions.

Chapter 5 focusses on the putative direct targets of FUL in IM tissue. Among the putative direct targets two genes involved in flavonoid synthesis were identified, FLAVONOID SYNTHESE 1 (FLS1) and UDP-GLUCOSYL TRANSFERASE 78D3 (UGT78D3). Interestingly, similar to the ful-7 mutant, the fls1 mutant is late flowering. Moreover, expression data exposed an increased gene expression for both FLS1 and UGT78D3 in developing meristems and showed FLS1 expression to be influenced by light conditions. We report the first link between the MADS domain protein FUL and flavonoid synthesis in Arabidopsis. Moreover, our results indicate a possible link between flavonoids and flowering time.

In Chapter 6 I discuss the findings of this thesis and make suggestions for further research. Taken together, the work in this thesis shows that intra-family protein interactions can influence DNA-binding specificity of a protein. Thereby these protein-protein interactions can influence genome-wide binding patterns and, as a result, the function of a protein. Moreover, by studying several putative direct targets of FUL in more detail, we demonstrated a connection between development and environment in growth-regulated programs. Interestingly, the FUL target SAUR10 is repressed by FUL in several tissues, including cauline leaves, inflorescence stems, and branches. However, no influence of FUL on SAUR10 expression could be detected in the pistil. So, despite the binding of FUL to the promotor of SAUR10 in the pistil, this binding does not result in gene regulation. This finding reflects the complex relation between TF occupancy and gene regulation, further research is needed to better understand this relation. Moreover, besides MADS domain protein interactions, we found FUL to interact with several proteins of other families. The role of these cross-family protein interactions in cooperative gene regulation is not fully understood and will be an important research topic in the coming years.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Angenent, Gerco, Promotor
  • Kaufmann, K., Co-promotor
Award date10 Nov 2017
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463436724
Publication statusPublished - 10 Nov 2017


  • transcription factors
  • dna binding proteins
  • arabidopsis thaliana
  • mads-box proteins
  • protein-protein interactions
  • gene regulation


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