Research highlight by Frank C.P. Holstege, Department of Physiological Chemistry, University Medical Center Utrecht, the Netherlands.
For eukaryotes, it is widely thought that transcription is primarily regulated through recruitment of the essential machinery to transcription start-sites. Previous hints challenging this paradigm have been confirmed by recent analyses showing that transcription regulation of a large number of genes actually occurs after recruitment. Mechanistically, such studies have gone furthest in Drosophila melanogaster (Muse et al, 2007; Zeitlinger et al, 2007). Here, conservative estimates indicate that more than 10% of genes are regulated through promoter-proximal pausing. On such genes, RNA polymerase II is recruited and initiates transcription, but then pauses around 50 bp downstream of the transcription start-site where it awaits further signals to resume elongation and complete transcription proper. These observations tie in with other observations made in yeast (Radonjic et al, 2005), embryonic stem cells (Bernstein et al, 2006; Lee et al, 2006) and differentiated mammalian cells (Guenther et al, 2007). There are numerous implications to these findings. For example, the widely assumed link between the presence of gene-specific transcription activators and full-length transcription appears to be much looser than expected. These results also underscore the importance of testing established models on a genome-wide scale. Indeed, other such surveys (Birney et al, 2007), indicate that to understand transcription, we may need to take into account even more surprises – such as the presence of ten times more start-sites than protein-coding genes and overlapping transcription units, etc… – than the post-recruitment mechanisms demonstrated in Drosophila.
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