Gene Regulation in Prokaryotes

In bacteria and archaea, structural proteins with related functions—such as the genes that encode the enzymes that catalyze the many steps in a single biochemical pathway—are usually encoded together within the genome in a block called an operon and are transcribed together under the control of a single promoter. This forms a polycistronic transcript (Figure 1). The promoter then has simultaneous control over the regulation of the transcription of these structural genes because they will either all be needed at the same time, or none will be needed.

Diagram of an operon. At one end is a regulatory gene; the operon proper begins further down. The operon is composed of a promoter, an operator, and structural genes (in this case 4, labeled A – D). Transcription produces a single mRNA strand that contains all the structural genes. Translation of this single mRNA produces 4 different proteins (A, B, C, D).

Figure 1. In prokaryotes, structural genes of related function are often organized together on the genome and transcribed together under the control of a single promoter. The operon’s regulatory region includes both the promoter and the operator. If a repressor binds to the operator, then the structural genes will not be transcribed. Alternatively, activators may bind to the regulatory region, enhancing transcription.

French scientists François Jacob (1920–2013) and Jacques Monod at the Pasteur Institute were the first to show the organization of bacterial genes into operons, through their studies on the lac operon of E. coli. They found that in E. coli, all of the structural genes that encode enzymes needed to use lactose as an energy source lie next to each other in the lactose (or lac) operon under the control of a single promoter, the lac promoter. For this work, they won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1965.

Although eukaryotic genes are not organized into operons, prokaryotic operons are excellent models for learning about gene regulation generally. There are some gene clusters in eukaryotes that function similar to operons. Many of the principles can be applied to eukaryotic systems and contribute to our understanding of changes in gene expression in eukaryotes that can result pathological changes such as cancer.

Each operon includes DNA sequences that influence its own transcription; these are located in a region called the regulatory region. The regulatory region includes the promoter and the region surrounding the promoter, to which transcription factors, proteins encoded by regulatory genes, can bind. Transcription factors influence the binding of RNA polymerase to the promoter and allow its progression to transcribe structural genes. A repressor is a transcription factor that suppresses transcription of a gene in response to an external stimulus by binding to a DNA sequence within the regulatory region called the operator, which is located between the RNA polymerase binding site of the promoter and the transcriptional start site of the first structural gene. Repressor binding physically blocks RNA polymerase from transcribing structural genes. Conversely, an activator is a transcription factor that increases the transcription of a gene in response to an external stimulus by facilitating RNA polymerase binding to the promoter. An inducer, a third type of regulatory molecule, is a small molecule that either activates or represses transcription by interacting with a repressor or an activator.

In prokaryotes, there are examples of operons whose gene products are required rather consistently and whose expression, therefore, is unregulated. Such operons are constitutively expressed, meaning they are transcribed and translated continuously to provide the cell with constant intermediate levels of the protein products. Such genes encode enzymes involved in housekeeping functions required for cellular maintenance, including DNA replication, repair, and expression, as well as enzymes involved in core metabolism. In contrast, there are other prokaryotic operons that are expressed only when needed and are regulated by repressors, activators, and inducers.

Practice Questions

What are the parts in the DNA sequence of an operon?

What types of regulatory molecules are there?