Bioinformatic analysis showed previously that a majority of promoters in the photoheterotrophic alphaproteobacterium Rhodobacter sphaeroides lack the thymine at the last position of the -10 element (-7T), a base that is very highly conserved in promoters in bacteria other than alphaproteobacteria. The absence of -7T was correlated with low promoter activity using purified R. sphaeroides RNA polymerase (RNAP), but the transcription factor CarD compensated by activating almost all promoters lacking -7T tested in vitro, including rRNA promoters. Here, we show that a previously uncharacterized R. sphaeroides promoter, the promoter for carD itself, has high basal activity relative to other tested R. sphaeroides promoters despite lacking -7T, and its activity is inhibited rather than activated by CarD. This high basal activity is dependent on a consensus-extended -10 element (TGn) and specific features in the spacer immediately upstream of the extended -10 element. CarD negatively autoregulates its own promoter by producing abortive transcripts, limiting promoter escape, and reducing full-length mRNA synthesis. This mechanism of negative regulation differs from that employed by classical repressors, in which the transcription factor competes with RNA polymerase for binding to the promoter, and with the mechanism of negative regulation used by transcription factors like DksA/ppGpp and TraR that allosterically inhibit the rate of open complex formation. IMPORTANCE R. sphaeroides CarD activates many promoters by binding directly to RNAP and DNA just upstream of the -10 element. In contrast, we show here that CarD inhibits its own promoter using the same interactions with RNAP and DNA used for activation. Inhibition results from increasing abortive transcript formation, thereby decreasing promoter escape and full-length RNA synthesis. We propose that the combined interactions of RNAP with CarD, with the extended -10 element and with features in the adjacent -10/-35 spacer DNA, stabilize the promoter complex, reducing promoter clearance. These findings support previous predictions that the effects of CarD on transcription can be either positive or negative, depending on the kinetic properties of the specific promoter.
Keywords: CarD; R. sphaeroides promoters; negative autoregulation; promoter escape; transcription factor; transcription inhibition.