The transcription of the genetic information encoded in DNA into RNA is performed by RNA polymerase (RNAP), a complex molecular motor, highly conserved across species. Despite remarkable progress in single-molecule techniques revealing important mechanistic details of transcription elongation (TE) with up to base-pair resolution, some of the results and interpretations of these studies are difficult to reconcile, and have not yet led to a minimal unified picture of transcription. We propose a simple model that accounts quantitatively for many of the experimental observations. This model belongs to the class of isothermal ratchet models of TE involving the thermally driven stochastic backward and forward motion (backtracking and forward tracking) of RNAP along DNA between single-nucleotide incorporation events. We uncover two essential features for the success of the model. The first is an intermediate state separating the productive elongation pathway from nonelongating backtracked states. The rates of entering and exiting this intermediate state modulate pausing by RNAP. The second crucial ingredient of the model is the cotranscriptional folding of the RNA transcript, sterically inhibiting the extent of backtracking. This model resolves several apparent differences between single-molecule studies and provides a framework for future work on TE.
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