Quantitative determination of rDNA transcription units in vertebrate cells

Exp Cell Res. 1991 Mar;193(1):78-86. doi: 10.1016/0014-4827(91)90540-b.


The adenosine analogue 5,6-dichloro-1-beta-D-ribofuranosylbenzimidazole (DRB) unravels the compact nucleoli to necklace-like structures when applied to living cells. The nucleolar beads contain RNA polymerase I (RPI) and argyrophilic proteins, both properties considered to be characteristic of ribosomal gene activity. Each granule is supposed to represent a single transcription unit consisting of an actively transcribing gene and its RPI complex. Indirect immunofluorescence with anti-RPI antibodies was used to determine the number of transcription units in DRB-treated cells of some representative mammals, marsupials, birds, and amphibians. We estimate that 45 to 145 rRNA genes are transcriptionally active in vertebrate fibroblasts, depending on the species. Nucleolar transcriptional activity does not correlate with the total number of rRNA genes. During in vitro aging of fibroblasts, the number of transcription units appears to remain unchanged. Different cell types of one same organism show varying numbers of transcription units, reflecting their differential metabolic activity. A particular situation exists in phytohemagglutinin-stimulated lymphocytes. In the course of nucleolar activation, the number of transcription units is increased considerably, implying that formerly inactive rRNA genes are recruited for transcription. The opposite phenomenon is observed during spermatogenesis. With the diploid spermatocytes developing into haploid spermatids, the transcriptionally active rRNA genes decrease in number until rRNA synthesis is completely blocked.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoantibodies
  • Cell Survival / genetics
  • DNA, Ribosomal / analysis*
  • Dichlororibofuranosylbenzimidazole / pharmacology
  • Fibroblasts / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Lymphocyte Activation / drug effects
  • Lymphocyte Activation / genetics
  • Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Male
  • Nucleolus Organizer Region / metabolism
  • Phytohemagglutinins / pharmacology
  • RNA Polymerase I / analysis*
  • Spermatogenesis / genetics
  • Spermatozoa / metabolism
  • Transcription, Genetic / drug effects
  • Transcription, Genetic / physiology*
  • Vertebrates


  • Autoantibodies
  • DNA, Ribosomal
  • Phytohemagglutinins
  • Dichlororibofuranosylbenzimidazole
  • RNA Polymerase I