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10.2.1: What Are Genes?

  • Page ID
    42531
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    Learning Objectives

    • Explain the two functions of the genome
    • Explain the meaning of the central dogma of molecular biology
    • Differentiate between genotype and phenotype and explain how environmental factors influence phenotype

    Clinical Focus: Part 1

    Mark is 60-year-old software engineer who suffers from type II diabetes, which he monitors and keeps under control largely through diet and exercise. One spring morning, while doing some gardening, he scraped his lower leg while walking through blackberry brambles. He continued working all day in the yard and did not bother to clean the wound and treat it with antibiotic ointment until later that evening. For the next 2 days, his leg became increasingly red, swollen, and warm to the touch. It was sore not only on the surface, but deep in the muscle. After 24 hours, Mark developed a fever and stiffness in the affected leg. Feeling increasingly weak, he called a neighbor, who drove him to the emergency department.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    1. Did Mark wait too long to seek medical attention? At what point do his signs and symptoms warrant seeking medical attention?
    2. What types of infections or other conditions might be responsible for Mark’s symptoms?

    DNA serves two essential functions that deal with cellular information. First, DNA is the genetic material responsible for inheritance and is passed from parent to offspring for all life on earth. To preserve the integrity of this genetic information, DNA must be replicated with great accuracy, with minimal errors that introduce changes to the DNA sequence. A genome contains the full complement of DNA within a cell and is organized into smaller, discrete units called genes that are arranged on chromosomes and plasmids. The second function of DNA is to direct and regulate the construction of the proteins necessary to a cell for growth and reproduction in a particular cellular environment.

    A gene is composed of DNA that is “read” or transcribed to produce an RNA molecule during the process of transcription. One major type of RNA molecule, called messenger RNA (mRNA), provides the information for the ribosome to catalyze protein synthesis in a process called translation. The processes of transcription and translation are collectively referred to as gene expression. Gene expression is the synthesis of a specific protein with a sequence of amino acids that is encoded in the gene. The flow of genetic information from DNA to RNA to protein is described by the central dogma (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). This central dogma of molecular biology further elucidates the mechanism behind Beadle and Tatum’s “one gene-one enzyme” hypothesis (see Using Microorganisms to Discover the Secrets of Life). Each of the processes of replication, transcription, and translation includes the stages of 1) initiation, 2) elongation (polymerization), and 3) termination. These stages will be described in more detail in this chapter.

    Diagram showing DNA with an arrow (labeled transcription) pointing to RNA. An arrow from RNA to proteins is labeled translation.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The central dogma states that DNA encodes messenger RNA, which, in turn, encodes protein.

    A cell’s genotype is the full collection of genes it contains, whereas its phenotype is the set of observable characteristics that result from those genes. The phenotype is the product of the array of proteins being produced by the cell at a given time, which is influenced by the cell’s genotype as well as interactions with the cell’s environment. Genes code for proteins that have functions in the cell. Production of a specific protein encoded by an individual gene often results in a distinct phenotype for the cell compared with the phenotype without that protein. For this reason, it is also common to refer to the genotype of an individual gene and its phenotype. Although a cell’s genotype remains constant, not all genes are used to direct the production of their proteins simultaneously. Cells carefully regulate expression of their genes, only using genes to make specific proteins when those proteins are needed (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)).

    A diagram starting with genotype. An arrow from genotype splits to point to environmental condition A and environmental condition B. An arrow from environmental condition A points to phenotype A. An arrow from environmental condition B points to phenotype B.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Phenotype is determined by the specific genes within a genotype that are expressed under specific conditions. Although multiple cells may have the same genotype, they may exhibit a wide range of phenotypes resulting from differences in patterns of gene expression in response to different environmental conditions.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    1. What are the two functions of DNA?
    2. Distinguish between the genotype and phenotype of a cell.
    3. How can cells have the same genotype but differ in their phenotype?

    USE AND ABUSE OF GENOME DATA

    Why can some humans harbor opportunistic pathogens like Haemophilus influenzae, Staphylococcus aureus, or Streptococcus pyogenes, in their upper respiratory tracts but remain asymptomatic carriers, while other individuals become seriously ill when infected? There is evidence suggesting that differences in susceptibility to infection between patients may be a result, at least in part, of genetic differences between human hosts. For example, genetic differences in human leukocyte antigens (HLAs) and red blood cell antigens among hosts have been implicated in different immune responses and resulting disease progression from infection with H. influenzae.

    Because the genetic interplay between pathogen and host may contribute to disease outcomes, understanding differences in genetic makeup between individuals may be an important clinical tool. Ecological genomics is a relatively new field that seeks to understand how the genotypes of different organisms interact with each other in nature. The field answers questions about how gene expression of one organism affects gene expression of another. Medical applications of ecological genomics will focus on how pathogens interact with specific individuals, as opposed to humans in general. Such analyses would allow medical professionals to use knowledge of an individual’s genotype to apply more individualized plans for treatment and prevention of disease.

    With the advent of next-generation sequencing, it is relatively easy to obtain the entire genomic sequences of pathogens; a bacterial genome can be sequenced in as little as a day.1 The speed and cost of sequencing the human genome has also been greatly reduced and, already, individuals can submit samples to receive extensive reports on their personal genetic traits, including ancestry and carrier status for various genetic diseases. As sequencing technologies progress further, such services will continue to become less expensive, more extensive, and quicker.

    However, as this day quickly approaches, there are many ethical concerns with which society must grapple. For example, should genome sequencing be a standard practice for everybody? Should it be required by law or by employers if it will lower health-care costs? If one refuses genome sequencing, does he or she forfeit his or her right to health insurance coverage? For what purposes should the data be used? Who should oversee proper use of these data? If genome sequencing reveals predisposition to a particular disease, do insurance companies have the right to increase rates? Will employers treat an employee differently? Knowing that environmental influences also affect disease development, how should the data on the presence of a particular disease-causing allele in an individual be used ethically? The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) currently prohibits discriminatory practices based on genetic information by both health insurance companies and employers. However, GINA does not cover life, disability, or long-term care insurance policies. Clearly, all members of society must continue to engage in conversations about these issues so that such genomic data can be used to improve health care while simultaneously protecting an individual’s rights.

    Operons

    In bacteria and archaea, structural proteins with related functions are usually encoded together within the genome in a block called an operon and are transcribed together under the control of a single promoter, resulting in the formation of a polycistronic transcript (Figure 10.2.1.3). In this way, regulation of the transcription of all of the structural genes encoding the enzymes that catalyze the many steps in a single biochemical pathway can be controlled simultaneously, because they will either all be needed at the same time, or none will be needed. For example, in E. coli, all of the structural genes that encode enzymes needed to use lactose as an energy source lie next to each other in the lactose (or lac) operon under the control of a single promoter, the lac promoter. French scientists François Jacob (1920–2013) and Jacques Monod at the Pasteur Institute were the first to show the organization of bacterial genes into operons, through their studies on the lac operon of E. coli. For this work, they won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1965. Although eukaryotic genes are not organized into operons, prokaryotic operons are excellent models for learning about gene regulation generally. There are some gene clusters in eukaryotes that function similar to operons. Many of the principles can be applied to eukaryotic systems and contribute to our understanding of changes in gene expression in eukaryotes that can result pathological changes such as cancer.

    Each operon includes DNA sequences that influence its own transcription; these are located in a region called the regulatory region. The regulatory region includes the promoter and the region surrounding the promoter, to which transcription factors, proteins encoded by regulatory genes, can bind. Transcription factors influence the binding of RNA polymerase to the promoter and allow its progression to transcribe structural genes. A repressor is a transcription factor that suppresses transcription of a gene in response to an external stimulus by binding to a DNA sequence within the regulatory region called the operator, which is located between the RNA polymerase binding site of the promoter and the transcriptional start site of the first structural gene. Repressor binding physically blocks RNA polymerase from transcribing structural genes. Conversely, an activator is a transcription factor that increases the transcription of a gene in response to an external stimulus by facilitating RNA polymerase binding to the promoter. An inducer, a third type of regulatory molecule, is a small molecule that either activates or represses transcription by interacting with a repressor or an activator.

    In prokaryotes, there are examples of operons whose gene products are required rather consistently and whose expression, therefore, is unregulated. Such operons are constitutively expressed, meaning they are transcribed and translated continuously to provide the cell with constant intermediate levels of the protein products. Such genes encode enzymes involved in housekeeping functions required for cellular maintenance, including DNA replication, repair, and expression, as well as enzymes involved in core metabolism. In contrast, there are other prokaryotic operons that are expressed only when needed and are regulated by repressors, activators, and inducers.

    Diagram of an operon. At one end is a regulatory gene; the operon proper begins further down. The operon is composed of a promoter, an operator, and structural genes (in this case 4, labeled A – D). Transcription produces a single mRNA strand that contains all the structural genes. Translation of this single mRNA produces 4 different proteins (A, B, C, D).
    Figure 10.2.1.3: In prokaryotes, structural genes of related function are often organized together on the genome and transcribed together under the control of a single promoter. The operon’s regulatory region includes both the promoter and the operator. If a repressor binds to the operator, then the structural genes will not be transcribed. Alternatively, activators may bind to the regulatory region, enhancing transcription.

    Exercise 10.2.7.110.2.7.1

    1. What are the parts in the DNA sequence of an operon?
    2. What types of regulatory molecules are there?

    Key Concepts and Summary

    • DNA serves two important cellular functions: It is the genetic material passed from parent to offspring and it serves as the information to direct and regulate the construction of the proteins necessary for the cell to perform all of its functions.
    • The central dogma states that DNA organized into genes specifies the sequences of messenger RNA (mRNA), which, in turn, specifies the amino acid sequence of proteins.
    • The genotype of a cell is the full collection of genes a cell contains. Not all genes are used to make proteins simultaneously. The phenotype is a cell’s observable characteristics resulting from the proteins it is producing at a given time under specific environmental conditions.
    • Genes in prokaryotes are often organized on operons to simplify regulation of expression of related genes.

    Footnotes

    1. 1 D.J. Edwards, K.E. Holt. “Beginner’s Guide to Comparative Bacterial Genome Analysis Using Next-Generation Sequence Data.” Microbial Informatics and Experimentation 3 no. 1 (2013):2.

    Contributors and Attributions

    • Nina Parker, (Shenandoah University), Mark Schneegurt (Wichita State University), Anh-Hue Thi Tu (Georgia Southwestern State University), Philip Lister (Central New Mexico Community College), and Brian M. Forster (Saint Joseph’s University) with many contributing authors. Original content via Openstax (CC BY 4.0; Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/microbiology/pages/1-introduction)


    10.2.1: What Are Genes? is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by OpenStax.