Transcription activation is enhanced by multivalent interactions independent of liquid-liquid phase separation.
Abstract: Transcription factors (TFs) consist of a DNA binding and an activation domain (AD) that are considered to be independent and exchangeable modules. However, recent studies conclude that also the physico-chemical properties of the AD can control TF assembly at chromatin via driving a phase separation into “transcriptional condensates”. Here, we dissected the mechanism of transcription activation at a reporter gene array with real-time single-cell fluorescence microscopy readouts. Our comparison of different synthetic TFs reveals that the phase separation propensity of the AD correlates with high transcription activation capacity by increasing binding site occupancy, residence time and the recruitment of co-activators. However, we find that the actual formation of phase separated TF liquid-like droplets has a neutral or inhibitory effect on transcription induction. Thus, our study suggests that the ability of a TF to phase separate reflects the functionally important property of the AD to establish multivalent interactions but does not by itself enhance transcription.