RNA polymerase (RNAP) melts promoter DNA to form transcription-competent open promoter complex (RPo). Interaction of the RNAP σ subunit with non-template strand bases of a conserved -10 element (consensus sequence T-12A-11T-10A-9A-8T -7) is an important source of energy-driving localized promoter melting. Here, we used an RNAP molecular beacon assay to investigate interdependencies of RNAP interactions with -10 element nucleotides. The results reveal a strong cooperation between RNAP interactions with individual -10 element non-template strand nucleotides and indicate that recognition of the -10 element bases occurs only when free energy of the overall RNAP -10 element binding reaches a certain threshold level. The threshold-like mode of the -10 element recognition may be related to the energetic cost of attaining a conformation of the -10 element that is recognizable by RNAP. The RNAP interaction with T/A-12 base pair was found to be strongly stimulated by RNAP interactions with other -10 element bases and with promoter spacer between the -10 and -35 promoter elements. The data also indicate that unmelted -10 promoter element can impair RNAP interactions with promoter DNA upstream of the -11 position. We suggest that cooperativity and threshold effects are important factors guiding the dynamics and selectivity of RPo formation.
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