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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The CTCF insulator protein forms an unusual DNA structure

Melissa J MacPherson and Paul D Sadowski*

Author Affiliations

Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto, 1 King's College Circle, Medical Sciences Building Room 4284, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5 S 1A8

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BMC Molecular Biology 2010, 11:101  doi:10.1186/1471-2199-11-101

Published: 21 December 2010



The CTCF insulator protein is a highly conserved zinc finger protein that has been implicated in many aspects of gene regulation and nuclear organization. The protein has been hypothesized to organize the human genome by forming DNA loops.


In this paper, we report biochemical evidence to support the role for CTCF in forming DNA loops. We have measured DNA bending by CTCF at the chicken HS4 β-globin FII insulator element in vitro and have observed a unique DNA structure with aberrant electrophoretic mobility which we believe to be a DNA loop. CTCF is able to form this unusual DNA structure at two other binding sites: the c-myc P2 promoter and the chicken F1 lysozyme gene silencer. We also demonstrate that the length though not the sequence of the DNA downstream of the binding site is important for the ability of CTCF to form this unusual DNA structure. We hypothesize that a single CTCF protein molecule is able to act as a "looper" possibly through the use of several of its zinc fingers.


CTCF is able to form an unusual DNA structure through the zinc finger domain of the protein. This unusual DNA structure is formed in a directional manner by the CTCF protein. The findings described in this paper suggest mechanisms by which CTCF is able to form DNA loops, organize the mammalian genome and function as an insulator protein.