Reading: Steps of Genetic Transcription

How does a cell use the information in its DNA?

To transcribe means “to paraphrase or summarize in writing.” The information in DNA is transcribed—or summarized—into a smaller version (RNA) that can be used by the cell. This process is called transcription.

The process in which cells make proteins is called protein synthesis. It actually consists of two processes: transcription and translation. Transcription takes place in the nucleus. It uses DNA as a template to make an RNA molecule. RNA then leaves the nucleus and goes to a ribosome in the cytoplasm, where translation occurs. Translation reads the genetic code in mRNA and makes a protein.

Transcription is the first part of the central dogma of molecular biology: DNA → RNA. It is the transfer of genetic instructions in DNA to messenger RNA (mRNA). During transcription, a strand of mRNA is made that is complementary to a strand of DNA. Figure 1 shows how this occurs.

Overview of transcription of DNA to mRNA

Figure 1. Overview of Transcription. Transcription uses the sequence of bases in a strand of DNA to make a complementary strand of mRNA. Triplets are groups of three successive nucleotide bases in DNA. Codons are complementary groups of bases in mRNA.

You can also watch this more detailed video about transcription.

Steps of Transcription

Steps of transcription: initiation, elongation, termination

Figure 2. Transcription occurs in the three steps—initiation, elongation, and termination—all shown here.

Transcription takes place in three steps: initiation, elongation, and termination. The steps are illustrated in Figure 2.

  1. Initiation is the beginning of transcription. It occurs when the enzyme RNA polymerase binds to a region of a gene called the promoter. This signals the DNA to unwind so the enzyme can ‘‘read’’ the bases in one of the DNA strands. The enzyme is now ready to make a strand of mRNA with a complementary sequence of bases.
  2. Elongation is the addition of nucleotides to the mRNA strand. RNA polymerase reads the unwound DNA strand and builds the mRNA molecule, using complementary base pairs. There is a brief time during this process when the newly formed RNA is bound to the unwound DNA. During this process, an adenine (A) in the DNA binds to an uracil (U) in the RNA.
  3. Termination is the ending of transcription, and occurs when RNA polymerase crosses a stop (termination) sequence in the gene. The mRNA strand is complete, and it detaches from DNA.

This video provides a review of these steps. You can stop watching the video at 5:35. (After this point, it discusses translation, which we’ll discuss in the next outcome.)

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.