How to switch the motor on: RNA polymerase initiation steps at the single-molecule level

M. Marchetti, A. Malinowska, I. Heller, G. J. L. Wuite

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RNA polymerase (RNAP) is the central motor of gene expression since it governs the process of transcription. In prokaryotes, this holoenzyme is formed by the RNAP core and a sigma factor. After approaching and binding the specific promoter site on the DNA, the holoenzyme-promoter complex undergoes several conformational transitions that allow unwinding and opening of the DNA duplex. Once the first DNA basepairs (similar to 10 bp) are transcribed in an initial transcription process, the enzyme unbinds from the promoter and proceeds downstream along the DNA while continuously opening the helix and polymerizing the ribonucleotides in correspondence with the template DNA sequence. When the gene is transcribed into RNA, the process generally is terminated and RNAP unbinds from the DNA. The first step of transcription-initiation, is considered the rate-limiting step of the entire process. This review focuses on the single-molecule studies that try to reveal the key steps in the initiation phase of bacterial transcription. Such single-molecule studies have, for example, allowed real-time observations of the RNAP target search mechanism, a mechanism still under debate. Moreover, single-molecule studies using Forster Resonance Energy Transfer (FRET) revealed the conformational changes that the enzyme undergoes during initiation. Force-based techniques such as scanning force microscopy and magnetic tweezers allowed quantification of the energy that drives the RNAP translocation along DNA and its dynamics. In addition to these in vitro experiments, single particle tracking in vivo has provided a direct quantification of the relative populations in each phase of transcription and their locations within the cell.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1303-1313
Number of pages11
JournalProtein Science
Issue number7
Early online date3 May 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2017

Bibliographical note

Special Issue on Molecular Machines


  • RNAP
  • abortive initiation
  • closed to open complex
  • conformational changes
  • intermediates
  • promoter escape
  • promoter search
  • single-molecule studies
  • transcription initiation


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