Recent studies have shown that RNA polymerase (RNAP) is organized into distinct clusters in Escherichia coli and Bacillus subtilis cells. Spatially organized molecular components in prokaryotic systems imply compartmentalization without the use of membranes, which may offer insights into unique functions and regulations. It has been proposed that the formation of RNAP clusters is driven by active ribosomal RNA (rRNA) transcription and that RNAP clusters function as factories for highly efficient transcription. In this work, we examined these hypotheses by investigating the spatial organization and transcription activity of RNAP in E. coli cells using quantitative superresolution imaging coupled with genetic and biochemical assays. We observed that RNAP formed distinct clusters that were engaged in active rRNA synthesis under a rich medium growth condition. Surprisingly, a large fraction of RNAP clusters persisted in the absence of high rRNA transcription activities or when the housekeeping σ70 was sequestered, and was only significantly diminished when all RNA transcription was inhibited globally. In contrast, the cellular distribution of RNAP closely followed the morphology of the underlying nucleoid under all conditions tested irrespective of the corresponding transcription activity, and RNAP redistributed into dispersed, smaller clusters when the supercoiling state of the nucleoid was perturbed. These results suggest that RNAP was organized into active transcription centers under the rich medium growth condition; its spatial arrangement at the cellular level, however, was not dependent on rRNA synthesis activity and was likely organized by the underlying nucleoid.
Keywords: RNA polymerase; spatial organization; superresolution; transcription factories; transcription regulation.