Dynamic post-translational modification of RNA polymerase II (RNAPII) coordinates the co-transcriptional recruitment of enzymatic complexes that regulate chromatin states and processing of nascent RNA. Extensive phosphorylation of serine residues at the largest RNAPII subunit occurs at its structurally-disordered C-terminal domain (CTD), which is composed of multiple heptapeptide repeats with consensus sequence Y1-S2-P3-T4-S5-P6-S7. Serine-5 and Serine-7 phosphorylation mark transcription initiation, whereas Serine-2 phosphorylation coincides with productive elongation. In vertebrates, the CTD has eight non-canonical substitutions of Serine-7 into Lysine-7, which can be acetylated (K7ac). Here, we describe mono- and di-methylation of CTD Lysine-7 residues (K7me1 and K7me2). K7me1 and K7me2 are observed during the earliest transcription stages and precede or accompany Serine-5 and Serine-7 phosphorylation. In contrast, K7ac is associated with RNAPII elongation, Serine-2 phosphorylation and mRNA expression. We identify an unexpected balance between RNAPII K7 methylation and acetylation at gene promoters, which fine-tunes gene expression levels.
Genes are sections of DNA that encode the instructions to make proteins. When a gene is switched on, the section of DNA is copied to make molecules of messenger ribonucleic acid (RNA) in a process called transcription. These messenger RNAs are then used as templates for protein production. In animals, plants and other eukaryotic organisms, an enzyme called RNA polymerase II is responsible for making messenger RNA molecules during transcription. This enzyme is made up of several proteins, the largest of which contains a long tail, called the carboxy-terminal domain. This domain is crucial for transcription because it serves as a landing platform for other enzymes that help to make the RNA molecules.
The carboxy-terminal domain contains multiple repeats of a string of seven amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). Normally, each repeat contains three amino acids called serines. However, in humans and other mammals, one of these serines is often substituted with another amino acid called lysine instead. This lysine (referred to as Lysine-7) was known to be modified by the addition of a chemical group called an 'acetyl' tag, but it was not clear how this tag affected transcription.
Dias, Rito, Torlai Triglia et al. carried out an in-depth study into how Lysine-7 is modified in mouse cells, and what effects these modifications have on transcription. The experiments show that Lysine-7 can also be modified by the addition of a different chemical group, called a 'methyl' tag. This new modification is also found in flies, worms and human cells, which suggests that it is generally important for transcription.
Next, Dias, Rito, Torlai Triglia et al. found that in mouse stem cells, methyl tags are added to Lysine-7 during the earliest steps of transcription, before the acetyl tags are added. Further experiments show that a balance between the addition of methyl tags and acetyl tags to Lysine-7 fine-tunes the activity of RNA polymerase II. These findings add to our understanding of how cells control the activity of RNA polymerase II at different genes. Future challenges are to find out which enzymes are responsible for adding and removing these chemical tags, and how the balance between the methyl and acetyl modifications is controlled.