Transcription is the key control point for regulation of numerous cellular activities. Bacteria regulate levels of gene expression by using transcription factors that modulate the recruitment of RNA polymerase (RNAP) to promoter elements in the DNA. Many bacteria also control gene expression by using a second class of transcription factor that uses energy from nucleotide hydrolysis to actively promote transcription initiation.
The sigma (σ) subunit is required for promoter recognition and initiation of transcription by the bacterial RNAP. Typically a bacterial cell may contain several alternative σ subunits with differing sequence specificities that direct the RNAP holoenzyme to different sets of promoters. The σ54 subunit (also known as RpoN, NtrA, and σN) is unique (42) in that it shares no detectable homology with any of the other known sigma factors (e.g., σ70 and σ28). σ54-RNAP binds to specific promoter sites, with the consensus DNA sequence YTGGCACGrNNNTTGCW (6), to form a transcriptionally inactive closed complex consisting of holoenzyme bound to double-stranded DNA. In contrast to σ70-RNAP bound at its cognate promoter sites, σ54-RNAP is unable to spontaneously isomerize from a closed complex to a transcriptionally competent open complex (11, 72). To proceed with initiation of transcription, the closed complex must participate in an interaction with a transcriptional activator, involving nucleotide hydrolysis. This transcriptional activator is usually bound at least 100 bp upstream of the promoter site, and DNA looping is required for the activator to contact the closed complex and catalyze formation of the open promoter complex. In this respect the activator resembles the enhancer-binding proteins (EBPs) found in eukaryotic systems, and for this reason such activators are known as bacterial EBPs.
From a protein structural point of view, EBPs share in common a σ54 interaction module (Pfam accession number (Fig.1).1). In nearly all of those investigated so far, there is a DNA-binding domain containing a helix-turn-helix sequence motif, enabling the protein to bind to specific DNA enhancer elements upstream of σ54-dependent promoters (44, 47, 52, 56, 72). One exception to this scenario was recently reported (30), where Pseudomonas aeruginosa FleQ can activate transcription while bound in the downstream vicinity of the promoter.) but typically have at least one additional domain (Fig.
Although the physiological advantages conferred by the σ54-EBP mode of transcription are not yet clear, activation of σ54-dependent transcription is highly regulated by environmental cues through regulatory modules in the EBPs and in some cases by interactions with other regulatory proteins. Sensory modules in EBPs include CheY-like response regulator domains, PAS domains, GAF domains, PRD modules, and V4R domains, often represented within an N-terminal region (Fig. (Fig.1).1). These sequence features are described in more detail later in this article. Intriguingly, recent complete genome sequences have revealed some unusual EBPs containing regions of homology to other signal transduction domains and enzymes. With the large number of complete bacterial genomes now available, and with the importance of accurate annotation of future sequence data, we feel that it is timely to survey the variety of domain architectures found in these important proteins.