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The lac Operon: An Inducer Operon

The lac Operon: An Inducer Operon

The third type of gene regulation in prokaryotic cells occurs through inducible operons, which have proteins that bind to activate or repress transcription depending on the local environment and the needs of the cell. The lac operon is a typical inducible operon. As mentioned previously, E. coli is able to use other sugars as energy sources when glucose concentrations are low. To do so, the cAMP–CAP protein complex serves as a positive regulator to induce transcription. One such sugar source is lactose.

The lac operon encodes the genes necessary to acquire and process the lactose from the local environment. CAP binds to the operator sequence upstream of the promoter that initiates transcription of the lac operon. However, for the lac operon to be activated, two conditions must be met. First, the level of glucose must be very low or non-existent. Second, lactose must be present. Only when glucose is absent and lactose is present will the lac operon be transcribed (see the figure below). This makes sense for the cell, because it would be energetically wasteful to create the proteins to process lactose if glucose was plentiful or lactose was not available.

Art Connection

The lac operon consists of a promoter, an operator, and three genes named lacZ, lacY, and lacA. RNA polymerase binds to the promoter. In the absence of lactose, the lac repressor binds to the operator and prevents RNA polymerase from transcribing the operon. In the presence of lactose, the repressor is released from the operator, and transcription proceeds at a slow rate. Binding of the cAMP–CAP complex to the promoter stimulates RNA polymerase activity and increases RNA synthesis. However, even in the presence of the cAMP–CAP complex, RNA synthesis is blocked if the repressor binds to the promoter.

Transcription of the lac operon is carefully regulated so that its expression only occurs when glucose is limited and lactose is present to serve as an alternative fuel source.

In E. coli, the trp operon is on by default, while the lac operon is off. Why do you think this is the case?


Tryptophan is an amino acid essential for making proteins, so the cell always needs to have some on hand. However, if plenty of tryptophan is present, it is wasteful to make more, and the expression of the trp receptor is repressed. Lactose, a sugar found in milk, is not always available. It makes no sense to make the enzymes necessary to digest an energy source that is not available, so the lac operon is only turned on when lactose is present.

If glucose is absent, then CAP can bind to the operator sequence to activate transcription. If lactose is absent, then the repressor binds to the operator to prevent transcription. If either of these requirements is met, then transcription remains off. Only when both conditions are satisfied is the lac operon transcribed (see the table below).

Signals that Induce or Repress Transcription of the lac Operon
GlucoseCAP bindsLactoseRepressor bindsTranscription

You can watch an animated video about the workings of lac operon below.

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