16.1 Regulation of Gene Expression
While all somatic cells within an organism contain the same DNA, not all cells within that organism express the same proteins. Prokaryotic organisms express most of their genes most of the time. However, some genes are expressed only when they are needed. Eukaryotic organisms, on the other hand, express only a subset of their genes in any given cell. To express a protein, the DNA is first transcribed into RNA, which is then translated into proteins, which are then targeted to specific cellular locations. In prokaryotic cells, transcription and translation occur almost simultaneously. In eukaryotic cells, transcription occurs in the nucleus and is separate from the translation that occurs in the cytoplasm. Gene expression in prokaryotes is mostly regulated at the transcriptional level (some epigenetic and post-translational regulation is also present), whereas in eukaryotic cells, gene expression is regulated at the epigenetic, transcriptional, post-transcriptional, translational, and post-translational levels.
16.2 Prokaryotic Gene Regulation
The regulation of gene expression in prokaryotic cells occurs at the transcriptional level. There are two majors kinds of proteins that control prokaryotic transcription: repressors and activators. Repressors bind to an operator region to block the action of RNA polymerase. Activators bind to the promoter to enhance the binding of RNA polymerase. Inducer molecules can increase transcription either by inactivating repressors or by activating activator proteins. In the trp operon, the trp repressor is itself activated by binding to tryptophan. Therefore, if tryptophan is not needed, the repressor is bound to the operator and transcription remains off. The lac operon is activated by the CAP (catabolite activator protein), which binds to the promoter to stabilize RNA polymerase binding. CAP is itself activated by cAMP, whose concentration rises as the concentration of glucose falls. However, the lac operon also requires the presence of lactose for transcription to occur. Lactose inactivates the lac repressor, and prevents the repressor protein from binding to the lac operator. With the repressor inactivated, transcription may proceed. Therefore glucose must be absent and lactose must be present for effective transcription of the lac operon.
16.3 Eukaryotic Epigenetic Gene Regulation
In eukaryotic cells, the first stage of gene-expression control occurs at the epigenetic level. Epigenetic mechanisms control access to the chromosomal region to allow genes to be turned on or off. Chromatin remodeling controls how DNA is packed into the nucleus by regulating how tightly the DNA is wound around histone proteins. The DNA itself may be methylated to selectively silence genes. The addition or removal of chemical modifications (or flags) to histone proteins or DNA signals the cell to open or close a chromosomal region. Therefore, eukaryotic cells can control whether a gene is expressed by controlling accessibility to the binding of RNA polymerase and its transcription factors.
16.4 Eukaryotic Transcription Gene Regulation
To start transcription, general transcription factors, such as TFIID, TFIIB, and others, must first bind to the TATA box and recruit RNA polymerase to that location. Additional transcription factors may also bind to other regulatory elements at the promoter to increase or prevent transcription. In addition to promoter sequences, enhancer regions help augment transcription. Enhancers can be upstream, downstream, within a gene itself, or on other chromosomes. Specific transcription factors bound to enhancer regions may either increase or prevent transcription.
16.5 Eukaryotic Post-transcriptional Gene Regulation
Post-transcriptional control can occur at any stage after transcription, including RNA splicing and RNA stability. Once RNA is transcribed, it must be processed to create a mature RNA that is ready to be translated. This involves the removal of introns that do not code for protein. Spliceosomes bind to the signals that mark the exon/intron border to remove the introns and ligate the exons together. Once this occurs, the RNA is mature and can be translated. Alternative splicing can produce more than one mRNA from a given transcript. Different splicing variants may be produced under different conditions.
RNA is created and spliced in the nucleus, but needs to be transported to the cytoplasm to be translated. RNA is transported to the cytoplasm through the nuclear pore complex. Once the RNA is in the cytoplasm, the length of time it resides there before being degraded, called RNA stability, can also be altered to control the overall amount of protein that is synthesized. The RNA stability can be increased, leading to longer residency time in the cytoplasm, or decreased, leading to shortened time and less protein synthesis. RNA stability is controlled by RNA-binding proteins (RPBs) and microRNAs (miRNAs). These RPBs and miRNAs bind to the 5′ UTR or the 3′ UTR of the RNA to increase or decrease RNA stability. MicroRNAs associated with RISC complexes may repress translation or lead to mRNA breakdown.
16.6 Eukaryotic Translational and Post-translational Gene Regulation
Changing the status of the RNA or the protein itself can affect the amount of protein, the function of the protein, or how long it is found in the cell. To translate the protein, a protein initiator complex must assemble on the RNA. Modifications (such as phosphorylation) of proteins in this complex can prevent proper translation from occurring. Once a protein has been synthesized, it can be modified (phosphorylated, acetylated, methylated, or ubiquitinated). These post-translational modifications can greatly impact the stability, degradation, or function of the protein.
16.7 Cancer and Gene Regulation
Cancer can be described as a disease of altered gene expression. Changes at every level of eukaryotic gene expression can be detected in some form of cancer at some point in time. In order to understand how changes to gene expression can cause cancer, it is critical to understand how each stage of gene regulation works in normal cells. By understanding the mechanisms of control in normal, non-diseased cells, it will be easier for scientists to understand what goes wrong in disease states including complex ones like cancer.