Towards a rational approach to promoter engineering: understanding the complexity of transcription initiation in prokaryotes

FEMS Microbiol Rev. 2024 Mar 1;48(2):fuae004. doi: 10.1093/femsre/fuae004.


Promoter sequences are important genetic control elements. Through their interaction with RNA polymerase they determine transcription strength and specificity, thereby regulating the first step in gene expression. Consequently, they can be targeted as elements to control predictability and tuneability of a genetic circuit, which is essential in applications such as the development of robust microbial cell factories. This review considers the promoter elements implicated in the three stages of transcription initiation, detailing the complex interplay of sequence-specific interactions that are involved, and highlighting that DNA sequence features beyond the core promoter elements work in a combinatorial manner to determine transcriptional strength. In particular, we emphasize that, aside from promoter recognition, transcription initiation is also defined by the kinetics of open complex formation and promoter escape, which are also known to be highly sequence specific. Significantly, we focus on how insights into these interactions can be manipulated to lay the foundation for a more rational approach to promoter engineering.

Keywords: promoter engineering; promoter sequence; sigma factors; synthetic biology; transcription initiation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • DNA
  • DNA-Directed RNA Polymerases* / genetics
  • DNA-Directed RNA Polymerases* / metabolism
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic / genetics
  • Sigma Factor / genetics
  • Sigma Factor / metabolism
  • Transcription, Genetic* / genetics


  • DNA-Directed RNA Polymerases
  • DNA
  • Sigma Factor