Quantitative and accurate analyses of protein-nucleic acid interactions in solution are greatly facilitated if the formation of the complex is accompanied by a large change of the spectroscopic signal (e.g., fluorescence) originating from the protein or nucleic acid. However, there are many instances when protein-nucleic acid interactions do not induce adequate changes in spectroscopic properties of the interacting macromolecules. We describe the theoretical and experimental aspects of a general method to analyze such protein-nucleic acid interactions. The method is based on quantitative titrations of a reference nucleic acid with the protein in the presence of a competing nucleic acid whose interaction parameters with the protein are to be determined. The Macromolecule Competition Titration (MCT) method allows for the determination of the absolute average binding density and the free protein ligand concentration over a large binding density range, unavailable by other methods, and construction of a model-independent true binding isotherm. Moreover, the determination of the absolute binding density of the ligand on nonfluorescent nucleic acid is independent of a priori knowledge of the binding characteristics of the protein to the reference fluorescent nucleic acid. Although the MCT method is applicable to any type of physicochemical signal that can be used to monitor the binding, we discuss the details of the method as it applies to the analysis monitored by a change in the nucleic acid fluorescence intensity and anisotropy upon binding a ligand. Moreover, the interaction parameters for a given nucleic acid can be determined by using as a reference the long polymer nucleic acid as well as short oligomers. In particular, the analysis is greatly simplified if the short fluorescent nucleic acid fragment, spanning the exact site-size of the complex and binding with only a 1:1 stoichiometry to the protein, is used as a reference macromolecule. We have illustrated the MCT method by applying it to the binding of the Escherichia coli DnaB helicase to unmodified, nonfluorescent single-stranded nucleic acids where the interactions are not accompanied by any adequate spectroscopic signal changes. In order to analyze simultaneous binding of a ligand to different competing nucleic acid lattices, we introduced the combined application of the McGhee-von Hippel theory and the Epstein combinatorial approach for the binding of a large ligand to a linear, homogeneous nucleic acid lattice. Our approach allows one to perform a direct fit of the entire experimental isotherm for the protein binding to two competing nucleic acid lattices without resorting to complex numerical calculations.
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