Uncovering the molecular interactions underlying MBD2 and MBD3 phase separation

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Chromatin organization controls DNA’s accessibility to regulatory factors to influence gene expression. Heterochromatin, or transcriptionally silent chromatin enriched in methylated DNA and methylated histone tails, self-assembles through multivalent interactions with its associated proteins into a condensed, but dynamic state. Liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS) of key heterochromatin regulators, such as heterochromatin protein 1 (HP1), plays an essential role in heterochromatin assembly and function. Methyl-CpG-binding protein 2 (MeCP2), the most studied member of the methyl-CpG-binding domain (MBD) family of proteins, has been recently shown to undergo LLPS in the absence and presence of methylated DNA. These studies provide a new mechanistic framework for understanding the role of methylated DNA and its readers in heterochromatin formation. However, the details of the molecular interactions by which other MBD family members undergo LLPS to mediate genome organization and transcriptional regulation are not fully understood. Here, we focus on two MBD proteins, MBD2 and MBD3, that have distinct but interdependent roles in gene regulation. Using an integrated computational and experimental approach, we uncover the homotypic and heterotypic interactions governing MBD2 and MBD3 phase separation and DNA’s influence on this process. We show that despite sharing the highest sequence identity and structural homology among all the MBD protein family members, MBD2 and MBD3 exhibit differing residue patterns resulting in distinct phase separation mechanisms. Understanding the molecular underpinnings of MBD protein condensation offers insights into the higher-order, LLPS-mediated organization of heterochromatin.

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