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Regulation of Gene Expression in Prokaryotes

• Prokaryotes must use substances and synthesize macromolecules just fast enough to meet their
needs. If enzymes needed, gene transcribed. If enzyme not needed, gene turned off. Allows for
conservation of cell resources. Controlling gene expression is one method of regulating metabolism.
The other method of controlling metabolism involves (you
should know this!)
• Operon--Genes grouped together; transcribed into single mRNA molecule containing coding
sequences for more than one gene (polycistronic gene; “cistron”= gene). Grouped together with one
• Operons can be inducible or repressible. Inducible products are made when the substrate is in the
environment (lactose) and needs to be metabolized. Repressible products are made when a signal
molecule is scarce (ie. Biosynthetic pathways such as tryptophan)
• Allows for coordinated control of genes required for metabolism. One switch controls more than
one gene.
• Not present in Eukaryotes. Eukaryotes have more complex methods of controlling gene expression.
(Next Chapter!)

Promoter Operator Gene

Binding of repressor to operator prevents transcription – GENE OFF [RNA poly-ase not able to bind to
Operators are regions of DNA (15 nucleotides long) that control RNA access to promoter. Without
repressors transcription will take place. Repressors are regulatory proteins that bind to operator and turn
genes off (negative control mechanism). [Acts as a braking mechanism] They are produced at a site
away from the operon by a specific regulatory gene.
Will occur if high levels of gene product (tryptophan) bind to activate repressor. Require some
threshold limit of product. Acts as corepressor (metabolite) by binding to repressor molecules which
then bind to operator and turn gene off.

Repressors alternate between active/inactive form to control transcription.

Type of regulatory protein.
• Active form- bound to operator
• Inactive form- conformation will not allow binding.

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Ex. Trp operon-
Enzyme/Operon (Usually
anabolic processes)
Presence of Trp (synthesis
of the 5 genes for trp not
needed) turns repressor
into active form Æ GENE
In order for repressible
operons to be transcribed,
the repressors must be in
inactive form. They
would be inactive if trp is
absent, therefore it would
be needed to be
synthesized from
precursor molecules
(NH4+ and a carbon

Repressible Operons are usually turned on until metabolite (trp in this case) activates the repressor.
This would occur in a bacterium if it is in the guts of an organism that has just eaten and supplied
bacteria with tryptophan!

Ex. Lac operon- Inducible

Enzyme/Operon (Usually catabolic
Presence of Lactose (substrate is
actually allolactose) changes
conformation of the lac repressor.
Inactive form unable to bind to
Genes are turned off until a
metabolite inactivates the repressor
allowing transcription to take place.
This would occur if there was
glucose available to the bacteria so
that it would not have to use lactose
as a food supply. The genes have
always been there, they are only
required if the environment deems it

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Allolactose (found in lactose after it has been broken down) deactivates the repressor protein and causes
the operon to become activated, transcription of genes (lac Z, lac Y and lac A) for lactose metabolism
occurs. Acts as an Inducer to turn on genes (an inducer deactivates a repressor)

Repressible and Inducible enzymes are both an example of negative control of a pathway. Activating
the repressor proteins shuts off the pathway. Positive control requires that an activator molecule switch
on transcription.

Positive gene regulation occurs when a protein binds to another, thus enhancing the RNA poly-ase
binding to the promoter. This interacts with the genome to act as an [Ignition switch] to turn on
transcription. The presence of lactose alone is not enough to deactivate the repressor and cause
transcription of the operon. Glucose must also
be absent since a cell will preferentially
metabolize glucose over lactose.

When glucose levels are low and lactose is

present, cAMP binds to an activator protein
(CRP) that binds to the lac promoter (left
binding site) and turns it on by helping RNA
poly-ase to bind to the promoter (right binding

Remember, cAMP activates other proteins.

Oftentimes by activating a kinase. which in-turn
phosphorylates another protein. In this case, the
low glucose levels cause an increased cAMP
level in the cell. This causes the activation of the
lac operon.

In bacteria and all organisms, gene expression can be turned on or

turned off by signals from outside a cell coming from some other part
of the body or even from the environment outside the organism.
External signals (neurotransmitters, hormones) interact (directly or
indirectly) with transcription factors to either activate or inactivate
the transcription of a gene by RNA Polymerase.

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