The AP-1 and ATF/CREB families of eukaryotic transcription factors are dimeric DNA-binding proteins that contain the bZIP structural motif. The AP-1 and ATF/CREB proteins are structurally related and recognize Identical half-sites (TGAC), but they differ in their requirements for half-site spacing. AP-1 proteins such as yeast GCN4 preferentially bind to sequences with overlapping half-sites, whereas ATF/CREB proteins bind exclusively to sequences with adjacent half-sites. Here we investigate the distinctions between AP-1 and ATF/CREB proteins by determining the DNA-binding properties of mutant and hybrid proteins. First, analysis of GCN4-ATF1 hybrid proteins indicates that a short surface spanning the basic and fork regions of the bZIP domain is the major determinant of half-site spacing. Replacement of two GCN4 residues on this surface (Ala244 and Leu247) by their ATF1 counterparts largely converts GCN4 into a protein with ATF/CREB specificity. Secondly, analysis of a Fos derivative containing the GCN4 leuclne zipper indicates that Fos represents a novel intermediate between AP-1 and ATF/CREB proteins. Thirdly, we examine the effects of mutations in the invariant arginine residue of GCN4 (Arg243) that contacts the central base pair(s) of the target sites. While most mutations abolish DNA binding, substitution of a histldine residue results in a GCN4 derivative with ATF/CREB binding specificity. These results suggest that the AP-1 and ATF/CREB proteins differ in positioning a short surface that includes the invariant arginine and that AP-1 proteins may represent a subclass (and perhaps evolutionary offshoot) of ATF/CREB proteins that can tolerate overlapping half-sites.
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