Gene Regulation

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe processes through which gene expression can be regulated.
  • Differentiate between gene regulation processes used by prokaryotes and eukaryotes.
  • Discuss the possible evolutionary consequences of changes in gene expression.

Each cell expresses, or turns on, only a fraction of its genes. “Expresses” or “turns on” means that protein is being produced from that gene. The rest of the genes are repressed, or turned off (no protein is being produced from those genes). The process of turning genes on and off is known as gene regulation. Gene regulation is an important part of normal development. Genes are turned on and off in different patterns during development to make a brain cell look and act different from a liver cell or a muscle cell, for example. Gene regulation also allows cells to react quickly to changes in their environments. Although we know that the regulation of genes is critical for life, this complex process is not yet fully understood.

For a cell to function properly, necessary proteins must be synthesized at the proper time. All organisms and cells control or regulate the transcription and translation of their DNA into protein. The process of turning on a gene to produce RNA and protein is called gene expression. Whether in a simple unicellular organism or in a complex multicellular organism, each cell controls when and how its genes are expressed. For this to occur, there must be a mechanism to control when a gene is expressed to make RNA and protein, how much of the protein is made, and when it is time to stop making that protein because it is no longer needed.

Cells in multicellular organisms are specialized; cells in different tissues look very different and perform different functions. For example, a muscle cell is very different from a liver cell, which is very different from a skin cell. These differences are a consequence of the expression of different sets of genes in each of these cells. All cells have certain basic functions they must perform for themselves, such as converting the energy in sugar molecules into energy in ATP. Therefore, there is a set of “housekeeping” genes that are expressed in all cells. Each type of cell also has many genes that are not expressed because the cell does not need to perform those functions. Specific cells also express many genes that are not expressed by other cells so that they can carry out their specialized functions. In addition, cells will turn on or off certain genes at different times in response to changes in the environment or at different times during the development of the organism. Unicellular organisms, both eukaryotic and prokaryotic, also turn on and off genes in response to the demands of their environment so that they can respond to special conditions.

Tortoiseshell cat
Figure 1 The unique color pattern of this cat’s fur is caused by either the orange or the black allele of a gene being randomly silenced (turned off).

The control of gene expression is extremely complex. Malfunctions in this process are detrimental to the cell and can lead to the development of many diseases, including cancer.


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OpenStax, Concepts of Biology. OpenStax CNX. May 18, 2016


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MHCC Biology 112: Biology for Health Professions Copyright © 2019 by Lisa Bartee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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