Gene Expression Mechanism


The gene itself is typically a long stretch of DNA and does not perform an active role. It is a blueprint for the production of RNA. The production of RNA copies of the DNA is called transcription, and is performed by RNA polymerase, which adds one RNA nucleotide at a time to a growing RNA strand. This RNA is complementary to the DNA nucleotide being transcribed; i.e. a T on the DNA means an A is added to the RNA. However, in RNA the nitrogen-containing base Uracil is inserted instead of Thymine wherever there is an Adenine on the DNA strand. Therefore, the mRNA complement of a DNA strand reading "TAC" would be transcribed as "AUG".

RNA processing

Transcription of protein encoding genes creates a primary transcript of RNA at the place where the gene was located. This transcript can be altered before being translated, this is particularly common in eukaryotes. The most common RNA processing is splicing to remove introns. Introns are RNA segments which are not found in the mature RNA, although they can function as precursors, e.g. for snoRNAs, which are RNAs that direct modification of nucleotides in other RNAs. Introns are common in eukaryotic genes but rare in prokaryotes.

RNA processing, also known as post-transcriptional modification, can start during transcription, as is the case for splicing, where the spliceosome removes introns from newly formed RNA.

Extensive RNA processing may be an evolutionary advantage made possible by the nucleus of eukaryotes. In prokaryotes transcription and translation (see below) happen together whilst in eukaryotes the nuclear membrane separates the two processes giving time for RNA processing to occur.

non-coding RNA maturation

In most organisms non-coding genes (ncRNA) are transcribed as precursors which undergo further processing. In the case of ribosomal RNAs (rRNA), they are often transcribed as a pre-rRNA which contains one or more rRNAs, the pre-rRNA is cleaved and modified (2′-O-methylation and pseudouridine formation) at a specific sites by approximately 150 different small nucleolus-restricted RNA species, called small nucleolar RNAs(snoRNAs) , which like snRNAs, snoRNAs associate with proteins, forming snoRNPs. In eukaryotes, in particular a snoRNP, called RNase MRP cleaves the 45S pre-rRNA into the 28S, 5.8S, and 18S rRNAs. The rRNA and RNA processing factors are form large aggregates called the nucleolus.

In the case of transfer RNA (tRNA), for example, the 5' sequence is removed by RNase P, whereas the 3' end is removed by the tRNase Z enzyme.. In the case of micro RNA (miRNA), miRNAs are first transcribed as primary transcripts or pri-miRNA with a cap and poly-A tail and processed to short, 70-nucleotide stem-loop structures known as pre-miRNA in the cell nucleus by the enzymes Drosha and Pasha, after being exported, it is then processed to mature miRNAs in the cytoplasm by interaction with the endonuclease Dicer, which also initiates the formation of the RNA-induced silencing complex (RISC), composed of the Argonaute protein.

RNA export

In eukaryotes most mature RNA must be exported to the cytoplasm from the nucleus. While some RNAs function in the nucleus, many RNAs are transported through the nuclear pores and into the cytosol. Notably this includes all RNA types involved in protein synthesis. In some cases RNAs are additionally transported to a specific part of the cytoplasm, such as a synapse; they are then towed by motor proteins that bind through linker proteins to specific sequences (called "zipcodes") on the RNA.


For some RNA (non-coding RNA) the mature RNA is the finished gene product. In the case of messenger RNA (mRNA) the RNA is an information carrier coding for the synthesis of one or more proteins. mRNA carrying a single protein sequence (common in eukaryotes) is monocistronic whilst mRNA carrying multiple protein sequences (common in prokaryotes) is known as polycistronic.

Each triplet of nucleotides of the coding regions of a messenger RNA corresponds to a binding site for a transfer RNA. Transfer RNAs carry amino acids, and these are chained together by the ribosome. The ribosome helps transfer RNA to bind to messenger RNA and takes the amino acid from each transfer RNA and makes a structure-less protein out of it.

In prokaryotes translation generally occurs at the point of transcription, often using a messenger RNA which is still in the process of being created. In eukaryotes translation can occur in a variety of regions of the cell depending on where the protein being written is supposed to be. Major locations are the cytoplasm for soluble cytoplasmic proteins and the endoplasmic reticulum for proteins which are for export from the cell or insertion into a cell membrane. Proteins which are supposed to be expressed at the endoplasmic reticulum are recognised part-way through the translation process. This is governed by the signal recognition particle - a protein which binds to the ribosome and directs it to the endoplasmic reticulum when it finds a signal sequence on the growing (nascent) amino acid chain.


Enzymes called chaperones assist the newly formed protein to attain (fold into) the 3-dimensional structure it needs to function. Similarly, RNA chaperones help RNAs attain their functional shapes. Assisting protein folding is one of the main roles of the endoplasmic reticulum in eukaryotes.

Protein transport

Many proteins are destined for other parts of the cell than the cytosol and a wide range of signalling sequences are used to direct proteins to where they are supposed to be. In prokaryotes this is normally a simple process due to limited compartmentalisation of the cell. However in eukaryotes there is a great variety of different targeting processes to ensure the protein arrives at the correct organelle.

Not all proteins remain within the cell and many are exported, for example digestive enzymes, hormones and extracellular matrix proteins. In eukaryotes the export pathway is well developed and the main mechanism for the export of these proteins is translocation to the endoplasmatic reticulum, followed by transport via the Golgi apparatus.

Further Reading

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