Basic mechanisms of transcript elongation and its regulation

Annu Rev Biochem. 1997;66:117-72. doi: 10.1146/annurev.biochem.66.1.117.


Ternary complexes of DNA-dependent RNA polymerase with its DNA template and nascent transcript are central intermediates in transcription. In recent years, several unusual biochemical reactions have been discovered that affect the progression of RNA polymerase in ternary complexes through various transcription units. These reactions can be signaled intrinsically, by nucleic acid sequences and the RNA polymerase, or extrinsically, by protein or other regulatory factors. These factors can affect any of these processes, including promoter proximal and promoter distal pausing in both prokaryotes and eukaryotes, and therefore play a central role in regulation of gene expression. In eukaryotic systems, at least two of these factors appear to be related to cellular transformation and human cancers. New models for the structure of ternary complexes, and for the mechanism by which they move along DNA, provide plausible explanations for novel biochemical reactions that have been observed. These models predict that RNA polymerase moves along DNA without the constant possibility of dissociation and consequent termination. A further prediction of these models is that the polymerase can move in a discontinuous or inchworm-like manner. Many direct predictions of these models have been confirmed. However, one feature of RNA chain elongation not predicted by the model is that the DNA sequence can determine whether the enzyme moves discontinuously or monotonically. In at least two cases, the encounter between the RNA polymerase and a DNA block to elongation appears to specifically induce a discontinuous mode of synthesis. These findings provide important new insights into the RNA chain elongation process and offer the prospect of understanding many significant biological regulatory systems at the molecular level.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA-Directed RNA Polymerases / metabolism
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Humans
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism*
  • Transcription, Genetic*


  • RNA, Messenger
  • DNA-Directed RNA Polymerases