Eukaryotic Transcriptional Regulation

Like prokaryotic cells, the transcription of genes in eukaryotes requires the actions of an RNA polymerase to bind to a sequence upstream of a gene to initiate transcription. However, unlike prokaryotic cells, the eukaryotic RNA polymerase requires other proteins, or transcription factors, to facilitate transcription initiation. Transcription factors are proteins that bind to the promoter sequence and other regulatory sequences to control the transcription of the target gene. RNA polymerase by itself cannot initiate transcription in eukaryotic cells. Transcription factors must bind to the promoter region first and recruit RNA polymerase to the site for transcription to be established.

The Promoter and the Transcription Machinery

Genes are organized to make the control of gene expression easier. The promoter region is immediately upstream of the coding sequence. This region can be short (only a few nucleotides in length) or quite long (hundreds of nucleotides long). The longer the promoter, the more available space for proteins to bind. This also adds more control to the transcription process. The length of the promoter is gene-specific and can differ dramatically between genes. Consequently, the level of control of gene expression can also differ quite dramatically between genes. The purpose of the promoter is to bind transcription factors that control the initiation of transcription.

The interaction between parts of the promoter and transcription factors is quite complex (Figure 1) and differs between specific genes. In addition to the general transcription factors, there are gene-specific transcription factors. There are hundreds of transcription factors in a cell that each bind specifically to a particular DNA sequence motif. Transcription factors respond to environmental stimuli that cause the proteins to find their binding sites and initiate transcription of the gene that is needed.

Eukaryotic gene expression is controlled by a promoter immediately adjacent to the gene, and an enhancer far upstream. The DNA folds over itself, bringing the enhancer next to the promoter. Transcription factors and mediator proteins are sandwiched between the promoter and the enhancer. Short DNA sequences within the enhancer called distal control elements bind activators, which in turn bind transcription factors and mediator proteins bound to the promoter. RNA polymerase binds the complex, allowing transcription to begin. Different genes have enhancers with different distal control elements, allowing differential regulation of transcription.
Figure 1 An enhancer is a DNA sequence that promotes transcription. Each enhancer is made up of short DNA sequences called distal control elements. Activators bound to the distal control elements interact with mediator proteins and transcription factors. Two different genes may have the same promoter but different distal control elements, enabling differential gene expression.

Enhancers and Transcription

In some eukaryotic genes, there are regions that help increase or enhance transcription. These regions, called enhancers, are not necessarily close to the genes they enhance. They can be located upstream of a gene, within the coding region of the gene, downstream of a gene, or may be thousands of nucleotides away.

Enhancer regions are binding sequences, or sites, for transcription factors. When a DNA-bending protein binds, the shape of the DNA changes (Figure 1). This shape change allows for the interaction of the activators bound to the enhancers with the transcription factors bound to the promoter region and the RNA polymerase. Whereas DNA is generally depicted as a straight line in two dimensions, it is actually a three-dimensional object. Therefore, a nucleotide sequence thousands of nucleotides away can fold over and interact with a specific promoter.

Turning Genes Off: Transcriptional Repressors

Like prokaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells also have mechanisms to prevent transcription. Transcriptional repressors can bind to promoter or enhancer regions and block transcription. Like the transcriptional activators, repressors respond to external stimuli to prevent the binding of activating transcription factors.


Unless otherwise noted, images on this page are licensed under CC-BY 4.0 by OpenStax.

OpenStax, Concepts of Biology. OpenStax CNX. January 3, 2017.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Principles of Biology by Lisa Bartee, Walter Shriner, and Catherine Creech is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book