Last week I posted a quick link about operons for my micro class to check out before taking their quiz on bacterial gene regulation This post is intended to complement that one. To go back to that post, click here. If there’s one thing to remember about operons it is that bacteria, lacking a nuclear membrane, regulate their genes differently than Eukaryotes. Having a nuclear membrane separates transcription and translation into two distinct compartments allowing for more subtle tweaking of Eukaryotic mRNAs before they are exported for translation.
One thing this does is it makes it very beneficial to package genes with related function closely on the genome and use a single regulatory region to control them all together. They wind up getting packed so closely together that they are actually expressed as a single messenger RNA – known as a polycistronic (meaning ‘many gene’) message.
Upstream of this polycistronic cassette are regulatory elements. One element common to all regulatory elements is the promoter. The promoter consists of several elements which ‘promote’ the binding of an RNA polymerase to the DNA. Additional regulatory elements exist to ensure that this polymerase only transcribes the genes if they are needed. In doing so, the cell conserves energy and components (e.g. Amino Acids) for only necessary processes.
In the case of the paradigm lac operon, lactose is a fuel source, but not as good as glucose. Therefore, enzymes to digest lactose are only needed when lactose is present, but glucose is not. In order to interrogate both conditions, two additional regulatory elements are present.
First, the operator sequence. This sequence binds a repressor protein that physically blocks the polymerase’s path in the absence of lactose. However, if lactose is present, the sugar binds to the repressor, causing a conformational (shape) change that causes the protein to release its grip on the operator sequence.
Second, a catabolite activator protein (CAP) will only bind to the DNA behind the RNA polymerase if cAMP is present. Let’s not get too distracted, other than to say that cAMP levels are high in the ABSENCE of glucose, and low when that sugar is present. When cAMP binds to the CAP protein it can now bind the DNA and do it’s other job: making a nice binding site for the RNA polymerase. Without CAP, the polymerase binds very inefficiently.
Together, the production of lactase enzymes (those that digest lactose) is exquisitely controlled in a way that conserves the most energy.