Prokaryotic Gene Regulation

Discuss different components of prokaryotic gene regulation

The DNA of prokaryotes is organized into a circular chromosome supercoiled in the nucleoid region of the cell cytoplasm. Proteins that are needed for a specific function are encoded together in blocks called operons. For example, all of the genes needed to use lactose as an energy source are coded next to each other in the lactose (or lac) operon.

In prokaryotic cells, there are three types of regulatory molecules that can affect the expression of operons: repressors, activators, and inducers. Repressors are proteins that suppress transcription of a gene in response to an external stimulus, whereas activators are proteins that increase the transcription of a gene in response to an external stimulus. Finally, inducers are small molecules that either activate or repress transcription depending on the needs of the cell and the availability of substrate.

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the basic steps in gene regulation in prokaryotic cells
  • Explain the roles of repressors in negative gene regulation
  • Explain the role of activators and inducers in positive gene regulation

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?

The trp Operon: A Repressor Operon

Bacteria such as E. coli need amino acids to survive. Tryptophan is one such amino acid that E. coli can ingest from the environment. E. coli can also synthesize tryptophan using enzymes that are encoded by five genes. These five genes are next to each other in what is called the tryptophan (trp) operon (Figure 1). If tryptophan is present in the environment, then E. coli does not need to synthesize it and the switch controlling the activation of the genes in the trp operon is switched off. However, when tryptophan availability is low, the switch controlling the operon is turned on, transcription is initiated, the genes are expressed, and tryptophan is synthesized.

The trp operon has a promoter, an operator, and five genes named trpE, trpD, trpC, trpB, and trpA that are located in sequential order on the DNA. RNA polymerase binds to the promoter. When tryptophan is present, the trp repressor binds the operator and prevents the RNA polymerase from moving past the operator; therefore, RNA synthesis is blocked. In the absence of tryptophan, the repressor dissociates from the operator. RNA polymerase can now slide past the operator, and transcription begins.

Figure 1. The five genes that are needed to synthesize tryptophan in E. coli are located next to each other in the trp operon. When tryptophan is plentiful, two tryptophan molecules bind the repressor protein at the operator sequence. This physically blocks the RNA polymerase from transcribing the tryptophan genes. When tryptophan is absent, the repressor protein does not bind to the operator and the genes are transcribed.

A DNA sequence that codes for proteins is referred to as the coding region. The five coding regions for the tryptophan biosynthesis enzymes are arranged sequentially on the chromosome in the operon. Just before the coding region is the transcriptional start site. This is the region of DNA to which RNA polymerase binds to initiate transcription. The promoter sequence is upstream of the transcriptional start site; each operon has a sequence within or near the promoter to which proteins (activators or repressors) can bind and regulate transcription.

A DNA sequence called the operator sequence is encoded between the promoter region and the first trp coding gene. This operator contains the DNA code to which the repressor protein can bind. When tryptophan is present in the cell, two tryptophan molecules bind to the trp repressor, which changes shape to bind to the trp operator. Binding of the tryptophan–repressor complex at the operator physically prevents the RNA polymerase from binding, and transcribing the downstream genes.

When tryptophan is not present in the cell, the repressor by itself does not bind to the operator; therefore, the operon is active and tryptophan is synthesized. Because the repressor protein actively binds to the operator to keep the genes turned off, the trp operon is negatively regulated and the proteins that bind to the operator to silence trp expression are negative regulators.

Watch this video to learn more about the trp operon.

Catabolite Activator Protein (CAP): An Activator Regulator

Just as the trp operon is negatively regulated by tryptophan molecules, there are proteins that bind to the operator sequences that act as a positive regulator to turn genes on and activate them. For example, when glucose is scarce, E. coli bacteria can turn to other sugar sources for fuel. To do this, new genes to process these alternate sugars must be transcribed. When glucose levels drop, cyclic AMP (cAMP) begins to accumulate in the cell. The cAMP molecule is a signaling molecule that is involved in glucose and energy metabolism in E. coli. When glucose levels decline in the cell, accumulating cAMP binds to the positive regulator catabolite activator protein (CAP), a protein that binds to the promoters of operons that control the processing of alternative sugars. When cAMP binds to CAP, the complex binds to the promoter region of the genes that are needed to use the alternate sugar sources (Figure 1). In these operons, a CAP binding site is located upstream of the RNA polymerase binding site in the promoter. This increases the binding ability of RNA polymerase to the promoter region and the transcription of the genes.

The lac operon consists of a promoter, an operator, and three genes named lacZ, lacY, and lacA that are located in sequential order on the DNA. In the absence of cAMP, the CAP protein does not bind the DNA. RNA polymerase binds the promoter, and transcription occurs at a slow rate. In the presence of cAMP, a CAP–cAMP complex binds to the promoter and increases RNA polymerase activity. As a result, the rate of RNA synthesis is increased.

Figure 1. When glucose levels fall, E. coli may use other sugars for fuel but must transcribe new genes to do so. As glucose supplies become limited, cAMP levels increase. This cAMP binds to the CAP protein, a positive regulator that binds to an operator region upstream of the genes required to use other sugar sources.

The lac Operon: An Inducer Operon

The third type of gene regulation in prokaryotic cells occurs through inducible operons, which have proteins that bind to activate or repress transcription depending on the local environment and the needs of the cell. The lac operon is a typical inducible operon. As mentioned previously, E. coli is able to use other sugars as energy sources when glucose concentrations are low. To do so, the cAMP–CAP protein complex serves as a positive regulator to induce transcription. One such sugar source is lactose. The lac operon encodes the genes necessary to acquire and process the lactose from the local environment. CAP binds to the operator sequence upstream of the promoter that initiates transcription of the lac operon. However, for the lac operon to be activated, two conditions must be met. First, the level of glucose must be very low or non-existent. Second, lactose must be present. Only when glucose is absent and lactose is present will the lac operon be transcribed. This makes sense for the cell, because it would be energetically wasteful to create the proteins to process lactose if glucose was plentiful or lactose was not available.

Practice Question

Transcription of the lac operon is carefully regulated so that its expression only occurs when glucose is limited and lactose is present to serve as an alternative fuel source.

The lac operon consists of a promoter, an operator, and three genes named lacZ, lacY, and lacA. RNA polymerase binds to the promoter. In the absence of lactose, the lac repressor binds to the operator and prevents RNA polymerase from transcribing the operon. In the presence of lactose, the repressor is released from the operator, and transcription proceeds at a slow rate. Binding of the cAMP–CAP complex to the promoter stimulates RNA polymerase activity and increases RNA synthesis. However, even in the presence of the cAMP–CAP complex, RNA synthesis is blocked if the repressor binds to the promoter.

In E. coli, the trp operon is on by default, while the lac operon is off. Why do you think this is the case?

If glucose is absent, then CAP can bind to the operator sequence to activate transcription. If lactose is absent, then the repressor binds to the operator to prevent transcription. If either of these requirements is met, then transcription remains off. Only when both conditions are satisfied is the lac operon transcribed (Table 1).

Table 1. Signals that Induce or Repress Transcription of the lac Operon
Glucose CAP binds Lactose Repressor binds Transcription
+ + No
+ + Some
+ + No
+ + Yes

Watch an animated tutorial about the workings of lac operon here.

Practice Questions

If glucose is absent, but so is lactose, the lac operon will be ________.

  1. activated
  2. repressed
  3. activated, but only partially
  4. mutated

Describe how transcription in prokaryotic cells can be altered by external stimulation such as excess lactose in the environment.

What is the difference between a repressible and an inducible operon?

Prokaryotic Gene Regulation at Work

As we’ve just learned, there are three types of regulatory molecules that can affect the expression of operons: repressors, activators, and inducers.

  • Repressors are proteins that suppress transcription of a gene in response to an external stimulus. In other words, a repressor keeps a gene “off.”
  • Activators are proteins that increase the transcription of a gene in response to an external stimulus. In other words, an activator turns a gene “on.”
  • Inducers are small molecules that either activate or repress transcription depending on the needs of the cell and the availability of substrate. Inducers basically help speed up or slow down “on” or “off” by binding to a repressor or activator. In other words: they don’t work alone.

In the interactive below, we will focus on the differences between activators and repressors:

Click here for a text-only version of the activity.

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.