11.1: Transcription Attenuation in Prokaryotes
Transcriptional attenuation occurs when RNA transcription is prematurely terminated due to the formation of a terminator mRNA hairpin structure. Bacteria use these hairpins to regulate the transcription process and control the synthesis of several amino acids including histidine, lysine, threonine, and phenylalanine. Transcription attenuation takes place in the non-coding regions of mRNA.
There are several different mechanisms used to attenuate transcription. In ribosome mediated transcriptional attenuation, the movement of a ribosome on the transcript is stalled or proceeds forward depending upon the availability of the tRNAs charged with a specific amino acid. High amino acid concentrations allow the ribosome to move forward leading to the formation of the terminator structure; deficiency of the amino acid stalls the ribosome and causes formation of the anti-terminator structure. The trp operon in E. coli, discussed below, is a good example of this type of mechanism. tRNA mediated transcriptional attenuation, as observed in trp operon of Lactococcus lactis, depends on an RNA-RNA interaction. When uncharged tRNAs are present in sufficient numbers, they directly bind to the mRNA and stabilize the anti-terminator structure. Transcriptional attenuation is also known to be mediated by proteins as found in bgl (beta-glucoside) operon in E. coli. This involves an RNA—protein interaction where a protein binds to the transcript and regulates the formation of an anti-terminator structure. More recently, another transcriptional attenuation mechanism was discovered where small metabolites like thiamine were observed to regulate transcription by directly binding to the non-coding mRNA segments, also known as riboswitches. Riboswitches can form a terminator or an anti-terminator structure depending upon the concentration and nature of a metabolite.
The trp operon in E. coli contains a 140 nucleotide leader sequence before its first structural gene. This leader sequence has four distinct segments – 1 through 4– and regulates the transcription of the downstream structural genes. Segment 1 can form a hairpin structure with segment 2. This 1-2 hairpin structure is known as a pause structure, as during transcription, it stalls RNA polymerase until the ribosome binds the newly transcribed RNA. This synchronizes transcription and translation in bacteria. When tryptophan concentrations are low, a hairpin structure forms between segments 2 and 3, known as the anti-terminator structure. This anti-terminator structure allows the continuous transcription of the downstream genes which produce enzymes for tryptophan synthesis. In contrast, when tryptophan concentrations are sufficient, a hairpin structure forms between segments 3 and 4, called the terminator structure. Along with a series of uracil bases that follow, the terminator structure causes RNA polymerase to dissociate from the RNA and template DNA strands, resulting in the termination of the transcription.