The genome contains several high-affinity non-functional binding sites for transcription factors (TFs) creating a hidden and unexplored layer of gene regulation. We investigate the role of such decoy sites in controlling noise (random fluctuations) in the level of a TF that is synthesized in stochastic bursts. Prior studies have assumed that decoy-bound TFs are protected from degradation, and in this case decoys function to buffer noise. Relaxing this assumption to consider arbitrary degradation rates for both bound/unbound TF states, we find rich noise behaviors. For low-affinity decoys, noise in the level of unbound TF always monotonically decreases to the Poisson limit with increasing decoy numbers. In contrast, for high affinity decoys, noise levels first increase with increasing decoy numbers, before decreasing back to the Poisson limit. Interestingly, while protection of bound TFs from degradation slows the time-scale of fluctuations in the unbound TF levels, decay of bounds TFs leads to faster fluctuations and smaller noise propagation to downstream target proteins. In summary, our analysis reveals stochastic dynamics emerging from nonspecific binding of TFs, and highlight the dual role of decoys as attenuators or amplifiers of gene expression noise depending on their binding affinity and stability of the bound TF.
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