Regulation of gene expression refers to a very broad term that may occur at various levels. Considering that gene expression results in the formation of a polypeptide, it can be regulated at several levels. In eukaryotes, the regulation could be exerted at
- transcriptional level (formation of primary transcript),
- processing level (regulation of splicing),
- transport of mRNA from nucleus to the cytoplasm,
- translational level.
The genes in a cell are expressed to perform a particular function or a set of functions. For example, if an enzyme called beta-galactosidase is synthesised by E. coli, it is used to catalyse the hydrolysis of a disaccharide, lactose into galactose and glucose; the bacteria use them as a source of energy.
Hence, if the bacteria do not have lactose around them to be utilised for energy source, they would no longer require the synthesis of the enzyme beta-galactosidase. Therefore, in simple terms, it is the metabolic, physiological or environmental conditions that regulate the expression of genes.
The development and differentiation of embryo into adult organisms are also a result of the coordinated regulation of expression of several sets of genes.
In prokaryotes, control of the rate of transcriptional initiation is the predominant site for control of gene expression. In a transcription unit, the activity of RNA polymerase at a given promoter is in turn regulated by interaction with accessory proteins, which affect its ability to recognise start sites. These regulatory proteins can act both positively (activators) and negatively (repressors).
The accessibility of promoter regions of prokaryotic DNA is in many cases regulated by the interaction of proteins with sequences termed operators. The operator region is adjacent to the promoter elements in most operons and in most cases the sequences of the operator bind a repressor protein. Each operon has its specific operator and specific repressor. For example, lac operator is present only in the lac operon and it interacts specifically with lac repressor only.