The Promoter and the Transcription Machinery


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OpenStax Biology 2e

Genes are organized to make the control of gene expression easier. The promoter region is immediately upstream of the coding sequence. This region can be short (only a few nucleotides in length) or quite long (hundreds of nucleotides long). The longer the promoter, the more available space for proteins to bind. This also adds more control to the transcription process. The length of the promoter is gene-specific and can differ dramatically between genes. Consequently, the level of control of gene expression can also differ quite dramatically between genes. The purpose of the promoter is to bind transcription factors that control the initiation of transcription.

Within the core promoter region, 25 to 35 bases upstream of the transcriptional start site, resides the TATA box. The TATA box has the consensus sequence of 5’-TATAAA-3’. The TATA box is the binding site for a protein complex called TFIID, which contains a TATA-binding protein. Binding of TFIID recruits other transcription factors, including TFIIB, TFIIE, TFIIF, and TFIIH. Some of these transcription factors help to bind the RNA polymerase to the promoter, and others help to activate the transcription initiation complex.

In addition to the TATA box, other binding sites are found in some promoters. Some biologists prefer to restrict the range of the eukaryotic promoter to the core promoter, or polymerase binding site, and refer to these additional sites as promoter-proximal elements, because they are usually found within a few hundred base pairs upstream of the transcriptional start site. Examples of these elements are the CAAT box, with the consensus sequence 5’-CCAAT-3’ and the GC box, with the consensus sequence 5’-GGGCGG-3’. Specific transcription factors can bind to these promoter-proximal elements to regulate gene transcription. A given gene may have its own combination of these specific transcription-factor binding sites. There are hundreds of transcription factors in a cell, each of which binds specifically to a particular DNA sequence motif. When transcription factors bind to the promoter just upstream of the encoded gene, it is referred to as a cis-acting element, because it is on the same chromosome just next to the gene. Transcription factors respond to environmental stimuli that cause the proteins to find their binding sites and initiate transcription of the gene that is needed.


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