The control of rRNA synthesis in response to both extra- and intracellular signals has been a subject of interest to microbial physiologists for nearly four decades, beginning with the observations that Salmonella typhimurium cells grown on rich medium are larger and contain more RNA than those grown on poor medium. This was followed shortly by the discovery of the stringent response in Escherichia coli, which has continued to be the organism of choice for the study of rRNA synthesis. In this review, we summarize four general areas of E. coli rRNA transcription control: stringent control, growth rate regulation, upstream activation, and anti-termination. We also cite similar mechanisms in other bacteria and eukaryotes. The separation of growth rate-dependent control of rRNA synthesis from stringent control continues to be a subject of controversy. One model holds that the nucleotide ppGpp is the key effector for both mechanisms, while another school holds that it is unlikely that ppGpp or any other single effector is solely responsible for growth rate-dependent control. Recent studies on activation of rRNA synthesis by cis-acting upstream sequences has led to the discovery of a new class of promoters that make contact with RNA polymerase at a third position, called the UP element, in addition to the well-known -10 and -35 regions. Lastly, clues as to the role of antitermination in rRNA operons have begun to appear. Transcription complexes modified at the antiterminator site appear to elongate faster and are resistant to the inhibitory effects of ppGpp during the stringent response.
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