Indexed on: 12 Oct '10Published on: 12 Oct '10Published in: Critical reviews in biochemistry and molecular biology
The small nuclear RNAs (snRNAs) are an essential class of non-coding RNAs first identified over 30 years ago. Many of the well-characterized snRNAs are involved in RNA processing events. However, it is now evident that other small RNAs, synthesized using similar mechanisms, play important roles at many stages of gene expression. The accurate and efficient control of the expression of snRNA (and related) genes is thus critical for cell survival. All snRNA genes share a very similar promoter structure, and their transcription is dependent upon the same multi-subunit transcription factor, termed the snRNA activating protein complex (SNAPc). Despite those similarities, some snRNA genes are transcribed by RNA polymerase II (Pol II), but others are transcribed by RNA polymerase III (Pol III). Thus snRNA genes provide a unique opportunity to understand how RNA polymerase specificity is determined and how distinct transcription machineries can interact with a common factor. This review will describe efforts taken toward solving those questions by using the fruit fly as a model organism. Drosophila melanogaster SNAPc (DmSNAPc) binds to a proximal sequence element (PSEA) present in both Pol II and Pol III snRNA promoters. Just a few differences in nucleotide sequence in the Pol II and Pol III PSEAs play a major role in determining RNA polymerase specificity. Furthermore, these same nucleotide differences result in alternative conformations of DmSNAPc on Pol II and Pol III snRNA gene promoters. It seems likely that these DNA-induced alternative DmSNAPc conformations are responsible for the differential recruitment of the distinct transcriptional machineries.