Regulation of gene expression refers to the control of the amount and timing of appearance of the functional product of a gene. Control of expression is vital to allow a cell to produce the gene products it needs when it needs them; in turn this gives cells the flexibility to adapt to a variable environment, external signals, damage to the cell, etc. Some simple examples of where gene expression is important are:
- Control of Insulin expression so it gives a signal for blood glucose regulation
- X chromosome inactivation in female mammals to prevent an "overdose" of the genes it contains.
- Cyclin expression levels control progression through the eukaryotic cell cycle
More generally gene regulation gives the cell control over all structure and function, and is the basis for cellular differentiation, morphogenesis and the versatility and adaptability of any organism.
Any step of gene expression may be modulated, from the DNA-RNA transcription step to post-translational modification of a protein. The stability of the final gene product, whether it is RNA or protein, also contributes to the expression level of the gene - an unstable product results in a low expression level. In general gene expression is regulated through changes in the number and type of interactions between molecules that collectively influence transcription of DNA and translation of RNA.
Regulation of transcription can be broken down into three main routes of influence; genetic (direct interaction of a control factor with the gene), modulation (interaction of a control factor with the transcription machinery) and epigenetic (non-sequence changes in DNA structure which influence transcription).
Direct interaction with DNA is the simplest and most direct method a protein can change transcription levels and genes often have several protein binding sites around the coding region with the specific function of regulating transcription. There are many classes of regulatory DNA binding sites known as enhancers, insulators, repressors and silencers. The mechanisms for regulating transcription are very varied, from blocking key binding sites on the DNA for RNA polymerase to acting as an activator and promoting transcription by assisting RNA polymerase binding.
The activity of transcription factors is further modulated by intracellular signals causing protein post-translational modification including phosphorylated, acetylated, or glycosylated. These changes influence a transcription factor's ability to bind, directly or indirectly, to promoter DNA, to recruit RNA polymerase, or to favor elongation of a newly synthetized RNA molecule.
The nuclear membrane in eukaryotes allows further regulation of transcription factors by the duration of their presence in the nucleus which is regulated by reversible changes in their structure and by binding of other proteins. Environmental stimuli or endocrine signals may cause modification of regulatory proteins eliciting cascades of intracellular signals, which result in regulation of gene expression.
More recently it has become apparent that there is a huge influence of non-DNA-sequence specific effects on translation. These effects are referred to as epigenetic and involve the higher order structure of DNA, non-sequence specific DNA binding proteins and chemical modification of DNA. In general epigenetic effects alter the accessibility of DNA to proteins and so modulate transcription.
DNA methylation is a widespread mechanism for epigenetic influence on gene expression and is seen in bacteria and eukaryotes and has roles in heritable transcription silencing and transcription regulaton. In eukaryotes the structure of chromatin, controlled by the histone code, regulates access to DNA with significant impacts on the expression of genes in euchromatin and heterochromatin areas.
In eukaryotes, where export of RNA is required before translation is possible, nuclear export is thought to provide additional control over gene expression. All transport in and out of the nucleus is via the nuclear pore and transport is controlled by a wide range of importin and exportin proteins.
Expression of a gene coding for a protein is only possible if the messenger RNA carrying the code survives long enough to be translated. In a typical cell an RNA molecule is only stable if specifically protected from degradation. RNA degradation has particular importance in regulation of expression in eukaryotic cells where mRNA has to travel significant distances before being translated. In eukaryotes RNA is stabilised by certain post-transcriptional modifications, particularly the 5' cap and poly-adenylated tail.
Intentional degradation of mRNA is used not just as a defence mechanism from foreign RNA (normally from viruses) but also as an route of mRNA ''destabilisation''. If an mRNA molecule has a complementary sequence to a small interfering RNA then it is targeted for destruction via the RNA interference pathway.
Direct regulation of translation is less prevalent than control of transcription or mRNA stability but is occasionally used. Inhbition of protein translation is a major target for toxins and antibiotics in order to kill a cell by overriding its normal gene expression control. Protein synthesis inhibitors include the antibiotic neomycin and the toxin ricin.
Once protein synthesis is complete the level of expression of that protein can be reduced by protein degradation. There are major protein degradation pathways in all prokaryotes and eukaryotes of which the proteasome is a common component. An unneeded or damaged protein is often labelled for degradation by addition of ubiquitin.
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