POSITIVE control of transcription often involves stimulatory protein-protein interactions between regulatory factors and RNA polymerase1. Critical steps in the activation process itself are seldom ascribed to protein-DNA distortions. Activator-induced DNA bending is typically assigned a role in binding-site recognition2, alterations in DNA loop structures3 or optimal positioning of the activator for interaction with polymerase4. Here we present a transcriptional activation mechanism that does not require a signal-induced DNA bend but rather a receptor-induced untwisting of duplex DNA. The allosterically modulated transcription factor MerR is a represser and an Hg(II)-responsive activator of bacterial mercury-resistance genes5-7.Escherichia coliRNA polymerase binds to the MerR-promoter complex but cannot proceed to a transcriptionally active open complex until Hg(II) binds to MerR (ref. 6). Chemical nuclease studies show that the activator form, but not the represser, induces a unique alteration of the helical structure localized at the centre of the DNA-binding site6. Data presented here indicate that this Hg-MerR-induced DNA distortion corresponds to a local underwinding of the spacer region of the promoter by about 33°relative to the MerR-operator complex. The magnitude and the direction of the Hg-MerR-induced change in twist angle are consistent with a positive control mechanism involving reorientation of conserved, but suboptimally phased, promoter elements and are consistent with a role for torsional stress in formation of an open complex.
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