Many cellular functions take place in discrete compartments, but our textbooks make little reference to any compartments involved in transcription. We review the evidence that active RNA polymerases and associated factors cluster into ‘factories’ that carry out many (perhaps all) of the functions required to generate mature transcripts. Clustering ensures high local concentrations and efficient interaction. Then, a gene must associate with the appropriate factory before it can be transcribed. Recent results show that the density and diameter of nucleoplasmic factories remain roughly constant as cells differentiate, despite large changes in the numbers of active polymerases and nucleoplasmic volumes.

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