The initiation of mRNA synthesis in eukaryotic cells is a complex and highly regulated process that requires the assembly of general transcription factors and RNAP II (RNA polymerase II; also abbreviated as Pol II) into a pre-initiation complex at the core promoter. The core promoter is defined as the minimal DNA region that is sufficient to direct low levels of activator-independent (basal) transcription by RNAP II in vitro. The core promoter typically extends approx. 40 bp up- and down-stream of the start site of transcription and can contain several distinct core promoter sequence elements. Core promoters in higher eukaryotes are highly diverse in structure, and each core promoter sequence element is only found in a subset of genes. So far, only TATA box and INR (initiator) element have been shown to be capable of directing accurate RNAP II transcription initiation independent of other core promoter elements. Computational analysis of metazoan genomes suggests that the prevalence of the TATA box has been overestimated in the past and that the majority of human genes are TATA-less. While TATA-mediated transcription initiation has been studied in great detail and is very well understood, very little is known about the factors and mechanisms involved in the function of the INR and other core promoter elements. Here we summarize our current understanding of the factors and mechanisms involved in core promoter-selective transcription and discuss possible pathways through which diversity in core promoter architecture might contribute to combinatorial gene regulation in metazoan cells.

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