Preservation of the coding potential of the genome and highly regulated gene expression over the life span of a human are two fundamental requirements of life. These processes require the action of repair enzymes or transcription factors that efficiently recognize specific sites of DNA damage or transcriptional regulation within a restricted time frame of the cell cycle or metabolism. A failure of these systems to act results in accumulated mutations, metabolic dysfunction, and disease. Despite the multifactorial complexity of cellular DNA repair and transcriptional regulation, both processes share a fundamental physical requirement that the proteins must rapidly diffuse to their specific DNA-binding sites that are embedded within the context of a vastly greater number of nonspecific DNA-binding sites. Superimposed on the needle-in-the-haystack problem is the complex nature of the cellular environment, which contains such high concentrations of macromolecules that the time frame for diffusion is expected to be severely extended as compared to dilute solution. Here we critically review the mechanisms for how these proteins solve the needle-in-the-haystack problem and how the effects of cellular macromolecular crowding can enhance facilitated diffusion processes. We restrict the review to human proteins that use stochastic, thermally driven site-recognition mechanisms, and we specifically exclude systems involving energy cofactors or circular DNA clamps. Our scope includes ensemble and single-molecule studies of the past decade or so, with an emphasis on connecting experimental observations to biological function.
ASJC Scopus subject areas