Nature 583 (7818) 858-861 [2020-07-00; online 2020-06-24]
Many proteins that bind specific DNA sequences search the genome by combining three-dimensional diffusion with one-dimensional sliding on nonspecific DNA1-5. Here we combine resonance energy transfer and fluorescence correlation measurements to characterize how individual lac repressor (LacI) molecules explore the DNA surface during the one-dimensional phase of target search. To track the rotation of sliding LacI molecules on the microsecond timescale, we use real-time single-molecule confocal laser tracking combined with fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (SMCT-FCS). The fluctuations in fluorescence signal are accurately described by rotation-coupled sliding, in which LacI traverses about 40 base pairs (bp) per revolution. This distance substantially exceeds the 10.5-bp helical pitch of DNA; this suggests that the sliding protein frequently hops out of the DNA groove, which would result in the frequent bypassing of target sequences. We directly observe such bypassing using single-molecule fluorescence resonance energy transfer (smFRET). A combined analysis of the smFRET and SMCT-FCS data shows that LacI hops one or two grooves (10-20 bp) every 200-700 μs. Our data suggest a trade-off between speed and accuracy during sliding: the weak nature of nonspecific protein-DNA interactions underlies operator bypassing, but also speeds up sliding. We anticipate that SMCT-FCS, which monitors rotational diffusion on the microsecond timescale while tracking individual molecules with millisecond resolution, will be applicable to the real-time investigation of many other biological interactions and will effectively extend the accessible time regime for observing these interactions by two orders of magnitude.