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Premature terminator analysis sheds light on a hidden world of bacterial transcriptional attenuation

Magali Naville and Daniel Gautheret*

Author Affiliations

Université Paris-Sud, CNRS, UMR8621, Institut de Génétique et Microbiologie, Bâtiment 400, F-91405 Orsay Cedex, France

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Genome Biology 2010, 11:R97  doi:10.1186/gb-2010-11-9-r97

Published: 29 September 2010



Bacterial transcription attenuation occurs through a variety of cis-regulatory elements that control gene expression in response to a wide range of signals. The signal-sensing structures in attenuators are so diverse and rapidly evolving that only a small fraction have been properly annotated and characterized to date. Here we apply a broad-spectrum detection tool in order to achieve a more complete view of the transcriptional attenuation complement of key bacterial species.


Our protocol seeks gene families with an unusual frequency of 5' terminators found across multiple species. Many of the detected attenuators are part of annotated elements, such as riboswitches or T-boxes, which often operate through transcriptional attenuation. However, a significant fraction of candidates were not previously characterized in spite of their unmistakable footprint. We further characterized some of these new elements using sequence and secondary structure analysis. We also present elements that may control the expression of several non-homologous genes, suggesting co-transcription and response to common signals. An important class of such elements, which we called mobile attenuators, is provided by 3' terminators of insertion sequences or prophages that may be exapted as 5' regulators when inserted directly upstream of a cellular gene.


We show here that attenuators involve a complex landscape of signal-detection structures spanning the entire bacterial domain. We discuss possible scenarios through which these diverse 5' regulatory structures may arise or evolve.