Plant homeodomain (PHD) fingers are often present in chromatin-binding proteins and have been shown to bind histone H3 N-terminal tails. Mutations in the autoimmune regulator (AIRE) protein, which harbours two PHD fingers, cause a rare monogenic disease, autoimmune polyendocrinopathy-candidiasis-ectodermal dystrophy (APECED). AIRE activates the expression of tissue-specific antigens by directly binding through its first PHD finger (AIRE-PHD1) to histone H3 tails non-methylated at K4 (H3K4me0). Here, we present the solution structure of AIRE-PHD1 in complex with H3K4me0 peptide and show that AIRE-PHD1 is a highly specialized non-modified histone H3 tail reader, as post-translational modifications of the first 10 histone H3 residues reduce binding affinity. In particular, H3R2 dimethylation abrogates AIRE-PHD1 binding in vitro and reduces the in vivo activation of AIRE target genes in HEK293 cells. The observed antagonism by R2 methylation on AIRE-PHD1 binding is unique among the H3K4me0 histone readers and represents the first case of epigenetic negative cross-talk between non-methylated H3K4 and methylated H3R2. Collectively, our results point to a very specific histone code responsible for non-modified H3 tail recognition by AIRE-PHD1 and describe at atomic level one crucial step in the molecular mechanism responsible for antigen expression in the thymus.
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