Mechanism of Transcription

Transcription complexes are molecular machines that carry out complex, multistep reactions in transcription initiation, elongation, and termination:

  1. RNA polymerase (RNAP) binds to promoter DNA, to yield an RNAP-promoter closed complex.
  2. RNAP unwinds ~14 base pairs of promoter DNA surrounding the transcription start site, rendering accessible the genetic information in the template strand of DNA, and yielding an RNAP-promoter open complex.
  3. RNAP begins synthesis of RNA as an RNAP-promoter initial transcribing complex. During initial transcription, RNAP uses a "scrunching" mechanism, in which RNAP remains stationary on promoter DNA and unwinds and pulls downstream DNA into itself and past its active center in each nucleotide-addition cycle, resulting in generation of a stressed intermediate.
  4. After RNAP synthesizes an RNA product ~10-15 nucleotides in length, RNAP breaks its interactions with promoter DNA, breaks at least some of its interactions with sigma, escapes the promoter, and begins transcription elongation as a transcription elongation complex. Energy stored in the stressed intermediate generated by scrunching during initial transcription is used to drive breakage of interactions with promoter DNA and interactions with sigma during promoter escape. 
  5. During transcription elongation, RNAP uses a "stepping" mechanism, in which RNAP translocates relative to DNA in each nucleotide-addition step. Each nucleotide-addition cycle during initial transcription and transcription elongation can be subdivided into four sub-steps: (i) translocation of the RNAP active center relative to DNA (by scrunching in initial transcription; by stepping in transcription elongation); (ii) binding of the incoming nucleotide; (iii) formation of the phosphodiester bond; and (iv) release of pyrophosphate.
  6. When RNAP reaches a termination site or receives a termination signal, RNAP stops synthesizing RNA, releases the RNA product, and dissociates from DNA.

Crystal structures have been reported for transcription elongation complexes without incoming nucleotides and for transcription elongation complexes with incoming nucleotides.  Based on these crystal structures, it has been proposed that each nucleotide-addition cycle is coupled to an RNAP active-center conformational cycle, involving closing of the RNAP active center upon binding of the incoming nucleotide, followed by opening of the RNAP active center upon formation of the phosphodiester bond.  According to this proposal, the closing and opening of the RNAP active center is mediated by the folding and the unfolding of an RNAP active-center structural element, the "trigger loop."

To understand transcription initiation, transcription elongation, transcription termination, and transcriptional regulation, it will be necessary to leverage the available crystallographic structural information, in order to define the structural transitions in RNAP and nucleic acid in each reaction, to define the kinetics of each reaction, and to define mechanisms of regulation of each reaction.

We are using cryo-EM, x-ray crystallography, FRET, and photocrosslinking methods to define distances and contacts within trapped intermediates in transcription initiation, elongation, and termination. In addition, we are using single-molecule FRET, single-molecule magnetic-tweezers DNA nanomanipulation, single-molecule nanopore-tweezers DNA nanomanipulation, and combined single-molecule FRET and single-molecule DNA nanomanipulation, to carry out single-molecule, millisecond-to-second timescale analysis of structural transitions.