Initiation of Transcription in Prokaryotes


Illustration shows the sigma subunit of R N A polymerase bound to two consensus sequences that are 10 and 35 bases upstream of the transcription start site. R N A polymerase is bound to sigma..
The σ subunit of prokaryotic RNA polymerase recognizes consensus sequences found in the promoter region upstream of the transcription start site. The σ subunit dissociates from the polymerase after transcription has been initiated. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

Prokaryotes do not have membrane-enclosed nuclei. Therefore, the processes of transcription, translation, and mRNA degradation can all occur simultaneously. The intracellular level of a bacterial protein can quickly be amplified by multiple transcription and translation events that occur concurrently on the same DNA template. Prokaryotic genomes are very compact, and prokaryotic transcripts often cover more than one gene or cistron (a coding sequence for a single protein). Polycistronic mRNAs are then translated to produce more than one kind of protein.

Prokaryotic RNA Polymerase

Prokaryotes use the same RNA polymerase to transcribe all of their genes. In E. coli, the polymerase is composed of five polypeptide subunits, two of which are identical. Four of these subunits, denoted ααβ, and β‘, comprise the polymerase core enzyme. These subunits assemble every time a gene is transcribed, and they disassemble once transcription is complete. Each subunit has a unique role; the two α-subunits are necessary to assemble the polymerase on the DNA; the β-subunit binds to the ribonucleoside triphosphate that will become part of the nascent mRNA molecule; and the β‘ subunit binds the DNA template strand. The fifth subunit, σ, is involved only in transcription initiation. It confers transcriptional specificity such that the polymerase begins to synthesize mRNA from an appropriate initiation site. Without σ, the core enzyme would transcribe from random sites and would produce mRNA molecules that specified protein gibberish. The polymerase comprised of all five subunits is called the holoenzyme.

Prokaryotic Promoters

A promoter is a DNA sequence onto which the transcription machinery, including RNA polymerase, binds and initiates transcription. In most cases, promoters exist upstream of the genes they regulate. The specific sequence of a promoter is very important because it determines whether the corresponding gene is transcribed all the time, some of the time, or infrequently. Although promoters vary among prokaryotic genomes, a few elements are evolutionarily conserved in many species. At the -10 and -35 regions upstream of the initiation site, there are two promoter consensus sequences, or regions that are similar across all promoters and across various bacterial species. The -10 sequence, called the -10 region, has the consensus sequence TATAAT. The -35 sequence has the consensus sequence TTGACA. These consensus sequences are recognized and bound by σ. Once this interaction is made, the subunits of the core enzyme bind to the site. The A–T-rich -10 region facilitates unwinding of the DNA template, and several phosphodiester bonds are made. The transcription initiation phase ends with the production of abortive transcripts, which are polymers of approximately 10 nucleotides that are made and released.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:

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