To better understand the mechanism of steps in early transcription by RNA polymerase II (pol II), we investigated the molecular determinants of transcript slipping within complexes assembled on promoters containing a pre-melted transcription bubble from –9 to +3. Transcript slippage occurs when an RNA transcript contains a repetitive sequence that allows the transcript to slip back and pair with the template strand of the DNA at a new register before transcription continues. We established the contributions of individual transcription factors, DNA elements, and RNA length to slipping on a heteroduplex template using a highly purified human pol II transcription system. We found that transcripts slip at a very defined point in the transcription reaction, after pol II completes phosphodiester bond synthesis at register +5. This point is set by the position of the polymerase active site on the DNA template, as opposed to the length of the transcript, as well as by a repetitive CUCU sequence that must occur from +2 to +5. Interestingly, slipping at this juncture is induced by TATA-binding protein and transcription factor IIB and requires a TATA box but not a transcription factor IIB recognition sequence. We propose a model in which transcribing complexes, upon completing phosphodiester bond synthesis at register +5, enter one of two branches in which they either complete productive synthesis of the transcript or undergo multiple rounds of transcript slipping
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