The inducible transcription factor Egr-1, which recognizes a 9-bp target DNA sequence via three zinc-finger domains, rapidly activates particular genes upon cellular stimuli such as neuronal signals and vascular stresses. Here, using the stopped-flow fluorescence method, we measured the target search kinetics of the Egr-1 zinc-finger protein at various ionic strengths between 40 and 400 mM KCl and found the most efficient search at 150 mM KCl. We further investigated the kinetics of intersegment transfer, dissociation, and sliding of this protein on DNA at distinct concentrations of KCl. Our data suggest that Egr-1's kinetic properties are well suited for efficient scanning of chromosomal DNA in vivo. Based on a newly developed theory, we analyzed the origin of the optimal search efficiency at physiological ionic strength. Target association is accelerated by nonspecific binding to nearby sites and subsequent sliding to the target as well as by intersegment transfer. Although these effects are stronger at lower ionic strengths, such conditions also favor trapping of the protein at distant nonspecific sites, decelerating the target association. Our data demonstrate that Egr-1 achieves the optimal search at physiological ionic strength through a compromise between the positive and negative impacts of nonspecific interactions with DNA.
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