2 minute read


Controlling Gene Expression

The complexity of any living cell is due to the well-orchestrated interactions of its proteins. Just as an orchestra cannot have every instrument play at once, a cell cannot have all its proteins function at once. One method of regulating protein function is to control when the protein is made, which is to say when the gene is expressed. Prokaryotic genes are usually controlled by operon systems, relatively simple systems that tie expression directly to metabolic activity in the cell. Eukaryotic genes are controlled by more complex regulatory systems that respond to hormones, growth factors, internal conditions, and many other influences.

To ensure that each gene is expressed when, and only when, it is needed, each eukaryotic gene has several control regions, termed the promoter and enhancer regions. These do not code for amino acids but are critical for proper gene expression. Mutations in these regions often change the rate at which a gene is expressed, or the factors in the cell or the environment to which it responds.

The promoter region is a sequence of 20 to 200 nucleotides "upstream" of the coding region to which the RNA polymerase enzyme binds, permitting it to begin transcribing the DNA. Promoters differ in size and sequence in prokaryotic and eukaryotic genes. Promoters attract RNA polymerase by first binding a variety of other proteins, called transcription factors. In some eukaryotic genes, promoter sites also occur within the coding region, allowing alternative transcripts with fewer exons.

Enhancers, also called activation sites, are located either nearby or far away from the promoter. Because DNA is looped and coiled, however, these sites are actually physically close to the gene's promoter even when distant on the DNA strand. Enhancers are gene-specific, and attract a variety of transcription factors. All of these work together to increase the rate of transcription by increasing the likelihood of RNA polymerase binding. Controlling the availability of these proteins is an important factor in regulating expression of the gene.

Elof Carlson


Alberts, Bruce, et al. Molecular Biology of the Cell, 4th ed. New York: Garland Science,2002.

Carlson, Elof. The Gene: A Critical History. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Publishing,1966.

Muller, H. J. "The Development of the Gene Theory." In Genetics in the Twentieth Century, L. C. Dunn, ed. New York: Macmillan, 1951.

Olby, Robert. The Path to the Double Helix. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1974.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaGenetics in Medicine - Part 2Gene - History Of The Gene And Structure Of Dna, Genes Code For Protein And Rna, Gene Expression