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SignificanceFOXN1 is a transcription factor that is essential for the development of the thymus and the production of T-lymphocytes. It is a member of a large family of transcription factors which recognize DNA sequences through the conserved Forkhead (FH) domain. FOXN1 recognizes a DNA sequence that is different from the common consensus binding sequence of FH domains, although key binding residues are identical. We present crystal structures of the FH domain of FOXN1, free and DNA-bound, which shed light on the different binding specificities; the structure also revelas the basis of the immunocompromised nude mutation, as well as a preferential binding to non-methylated CpG motifs.AbstractFOXN1 is a member of the forkhead box (FOX) family of transcription factors, and plays an important role in thymic epithelial cell differentiation and function. FOXN1 mutations in humans and mice give rise to the "nude" phenotype which is marked by athymia. FOXN1 belongs to a subset of the FOX family that recognize an alternate consensus sequence (GACGC), which is different from the more widely-recognized canonical sequence consensus RYAAAYA. Here, we present the structure of FOXN1 in complex with DNA at 1.6 Å resolution, in which the DNA sequence is recognised by a mixture of direct and water-mediated contacts provided by residues in an a-helix inserted in the DNA major groove (the recognition helix). Comparisons with other FOX family structures reveal that the canonical and alternate DNA sequences are bound in two distinct modes, with partially different registers for the protein DNA contacts. We identify a single alternate rotamer within the recognition helix itself as an important determinant of DNA specificity, and indicate sequence features in the recognition helix that could be used to predict the specificity of other FOX family members. Finally we demonstrate that FOXN1 has a significantly reduced affinity for DNA containing 5-methylcytosine, which may have implications for the role of FOXN1 in thymic senescence.

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