Control of Gene Expression

All living cells within an organism contain the same genome, but why does each cell function differently from others? It is because the level of gene expression in different cells is controlled. Your skin cells are different from your hair cells, and your muscle cells are different from your cardiac cells because of the control of gene expression

Control of Gene Expression Control of Gene Expression

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Table of contents

    By controlling what genes are expressed, we can regulate the metabolic activities of different cells. This is because genes encode for proteins which, in turn, determine the function of a cell. As a result, cells become specialized to perform specific functions. This is why regulating gene expression is highly important because, without it, we wouldn't have specialized cells.

    But first off, we need to have cells that have the ability to specialize into a large range of cells. These are called stem cells.

    Stem cells

    Stem cells are defined as unspecialized cells that divide indefinitely by mitosis and differentiate into many cell types. There are three classes:

    • Totipotent stem cells

    • Pluripotent stem cells

    • Multipotent stem cells

    Totipotent stem cells are present during the zygote stage and have the ability to differentiate into all cell types, including extra-embryonic cells (like the placenta). As you make your way down the list above, the range of differentiation decreases. When these cells become specialized, they can no longer become any other type of cell.

    The fact that specialized cells no longer divide continuously is a good thing! It means they can efficiently perform their metabolic activities.

    Control of Gene Expression

    The regulation of gene expression begins before transcription, the first stage of protein synthesis. Regulatory proteins called transcription factors dictate which genes are expressed (turned 'on') and which genes are not expressed (turned 'off'). The diagram below illustrates the binding of a transcription factor to DNA. This process is tightly controlled so that specific messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules are produced, and therefore only specific proteins are produced.

    Control of Gene Expression, transcription factor, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The binding of a transcription factor to DNA

    Another type of gene expression regulation that occurs at the transcriptional level includes the alteration of the DNA-histone complex. This type is especially fascinating because the base sequence of DNA is not changed, and yet it still has the ability to direct which genes are expressed. This is called epigenetics.


    Epigenetics is the study of DNA and histone modifications to control gene expression. These modifications are heritable and are not caused by any changes to the base sequence of DNA. Modifications include DNA methylation and histone acetylation, illustrated in the diagram below. This has the effect of either condensing or loosening the DNA-histone complex. The pattern of modifications is called the epigenome.

    Control of Gene Expression, epigenetic modifications, StudySmarterFig. 2 - DNA methylation and histone acetylation

    Gene expression is tightly regulated, and for good reason. If the wrong genes are expressed or silenced, genetic diseases can arise. Cancer is a disease that is characterized by the uncontrollable proliferation of cells, and in some cases, the cause has an epigenetic origin.

    Translational control of Gene Expression

    Before translation occurs, additional changes to the mRNA molecule can occur. This can include mRNA splicing which is the removal of introns (non-coding DNA) from the molecule.

    Even after translation, the polypeptide can be modified even further, such as the addition of chemical groups. A great example of this is the addition of a phosphate group to a polypeptide, catalysed by protein kinases. This addition can alter the folding of a protein and therefore change the protein function.

    mRNA splicing occurs only in eukaryotic cells as their genome includes both introns and exons. Prokaryotic genomes contain only introns so mRNA splicing is unnecessary.

    Genome projects and technology

    The sequencing of a genome maps out of the complete set of genetic information contained within an organism. For example, the Human Genome Project (1990-2003) was a collaborative effort to determine all the genes in our cells. But this was no easy endeavour. The project used technologies like whole-genome shotgun (WGS) sequencing, and from this came other advances. These include DNA hybridization, which is used to locate specific alleles of a gene and genetic fingerprinting. These technological advances have wide applications in disease treatment and forensic science.

    Control of Gene Expression - Key takeaways

    • All living cells contain the same genome, but specialized cells express specific genes.
    • Transcriptional control of gene expression includes transcription factors and epigenetic modifications.
    • Epigenetics is the study of DNA and histone modifications to control gene expression. This does not include changes to the base sequence of DNA.
    • Translational control of gene expression includes the addition of chemical groups to polypeptides, such as phosphate groups.
    • DNA technologies, such as DNA hybridization, emerged from genetic studies and are now widely used in medical and forensic applications.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Control of Gene Expression

    Why is the control of gene expression important?

    The control of gene expression is important as it leads to the creation of specialised cells. Also, it determines what proteins are being produced in a cell.

    What is the epigenetic control of gene expression?

    Epigenetic control describes modifications to DNA and histones to regulate gene expression. These modifications are heritable and are therefore passed down generations and do not include changes to the base sequence of DNA.

    How does the control of gene expression lead to differentiation?

    Controlling the genes expressed in a cell means controlling what proteins are being synthesised. Proteins dictate the function of a cell, and therefore the expression of particular genes will result in a cell performing a particular function. This leads to a specialised cell.

    What controls the timing of gene expression?

    The timing of gene expression is controlled by proteins called transcription factors. These are regulatory proteins that bind to genes to activate their expression or silence their expression. They bind to genes to produce the required proteins when it is needed.

    How do you control and regulate gene expression?

    The control of gene expression can happen at a transcriptional and translational level. At a transcriptional level, transcription factors can activate or silence specific genes. DNA and histones can be modified to result in a tightly packed or loosely packed DNA-histone complex. At a translational level, chemical groups can be added to the polypeptide to affect the folding and function of a protein.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How does increased DNA methylation affect gene transcription?

    What is the correlation coefficient used for?

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