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I'm taking a molecular genetics course, and we're currently discussing prokaryotic operons. The lacZ operon came up frequently for me as an undergraduate as an example for teaching regulatory control of transcription, and the focus was always on determining whether the operon was transcribed under certain conditions (mutations, nutrients, etc). I don't remember much discussion about what happens after transcription. Today, however, I noticed something I had never seen before: three of the genes in the lacZ operon are transcribed simultaneously on the same transcript--I don't know how I missed this before!

My question is what happens post-transcription. Obviously there are 3 protein products. How are these products derived from the transcript? Is the transcript broken into 3 pieces, or does a single ribosome translate all 3 proteins from a single transcript substrate, or do ribosomes translate a single protein from a single transcript substrate at a time? Where could I find the relevant literature that elucidated the translation process?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

As you pointed out, the repressor gene lacI is transcribed as a one mRNA, and three structural genes: lacZ, lacY and lacA are transcribed into a single polycistronic mRNA. The two mRNAs are translated independently of one another.

The polycisronic mRNA is not broken into pieces. Rather, it is translated by ribosomes (at least three, explanation below), giving rise to three individual proteins.

enter image description here

How from one mRNA three protein products are translated? The polycistronic DNA consists of a promotor (Plac), which ensures that transcription will be initiated, and three open reading frames (ORFs) for for lacZ, lacY, and lacA. Upstream of each of the ORFs, ribosome binding sites (RBSs) are located. Translation is initiated by the binding of the ribosome with both the RBS and the start codon. Thus, multiple ribosomes can bind upstream of the three ORFs and thus resulting into three proteins.

There is not very thorough literature on the translation of polycistronic RNA in prokaryotes, mainly because the condition which is necessary for translation is the RBS and there is nothing specific for polycistronic translation. A brief overview on the subject can be found in several places, as I recommend the following:

  1. Ralston, A. (2008) Operons and prokaryotic gene regulation. Nature Education
  2. From Genes to Genomes: Concepts and Applications of DNA Technology
  3. Molecular cell biology
  4. Analysis of Genes and Genomes
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