|MadSci Network: Molecular Biology|
The lac operon and the trp operon, both from the bacterium E. coli, are the two most commonly used examples in teaching gene regulation in prokaryotes. They have a lot in common with operons in a wide variety of prokaryotes. If you go to the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) Entrez query page and type in "operon", you'll find over 7000 hits to nucleotide sequences of operons in various prokaryotes, as well as over 22,000 hits to literature citations involving operons in PubMed. Almost all of these will be operons in prokaryotes (bacteria). This is because, generally, eukaryotic mRNAs contain information from only one gene, encoding one protein. Prokaryotic mRNAs are often polycistronic, that is, they encode multiple proteins -- like the product of the lac operon when it is transcribed. Polycistronic mRNAs do occur in eukaryotes, though, (see T. Blumenthal, Brief Funct Genomic Proteomic. 2004 Nov;3(3):199-211 for a short review). The lac operon model has broader applicability, though. The basic idea, that trans-acting proteins can bind to cis-acting sites in the DNA and either reduce (negative control) or increase (positive control) rates of transcription, is applicable to all known organisms. Both of these types of control occur in the lac operon. The CAP protein binds to a site just upstream of the promoter, and when bound, it assists binding of RNA polymerase -- that's positive control. The lac repressor binds to an operator just downstream from the promoter, and when bound, it prevents transcription -- that's negative control. Both positive and negative control are known to occur in a wide variety of eukaryotes, so in this sense the lac operon is a fairly good model for understanding gene regulation in eukaryotes as well. There are plenty of differences between gene regulation in eukaryotes and prokaryotes as well. Eukaryotic promoters are large and highly variable, and initiation of transcription in a eukaryote usually involves binding of a fairly large number of proteins in the promoter region before RNA polymerase can bind at all. Still, the basic mechanisms found in the lac operon make a good starting point for understanding regulation in all organisms. Therefore, I'd say that yes, the lac operon has wide applicability. It's a very good model for starting to understand operons generally, which are common in prokaryotes and found occasionally in eukaryotes. It's also a pretty good model for understanding the basic principles of regulation in eukaryotes as well.
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