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Using HeLa cells, we have developed methods to determine 1) the number of RNA polymerases that are active at any moment, 2) the number of transcription sites, and 3) the number of polymerases associated with one transcription unit. To count engaged polymerases, cells were encapsulated in agarose, permeabilized, treated with ribonuclease, and the now-truncated transcripts extended in [32P]uridine triphosphate; then, the number of growing transcripts was calculated from the total number of nucleotides incorporated and the average increment in length of the transcripts. Approximately 15,000 transcripts were elongated by polymerase I, and ~75,000 were elongated by polymerases II and III. Transcription sites were detected after the cells were grown in bromouridine for <2.5 min, after which the resulting bromo-RNA was labeled with gold particles; electron microscopy showed that most extranucleolar transcripts were concentrated in ~2400 sites with diameters of ~80 nm. The number of polymerases associated with a transcription unit was counted after templates were spread over a large area; most extranucleolar units were associated with one elongating complex. These results suggest that many templates are attached in a 'cloud' of loops around a site; each site, or transcription 'factory,' would contain ~30 active polymerases and associated transcripts.

Original publication




Journal article


Molecular Biology of the Cell

Publication Date





1523 - 1536