Summary
The lactose operon (lac operon) is an operon required for the transport and metabolism of lactose in E. coli and many other enteric bacteria. Although glucose is the preferred carbon source for most bacteria, the lac operon allows for the effective digestion of lactose when glucose is not available through the activity of beta-galactosidase. Gene regulation of the lac operon was the first genetic regulatory mechanism to be understood clearly, so it has become a foremost example of prokaryotic gene regulation. It is often discussed in introductory molecular and cellular biology classes for this reason. This lactose metabolism system was used by François Jacob and Jacques Monod to determine how a biological cell knows which enzyme to synthesize. Their work on the lac operon won them the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1965. Bacterial operons are polycistronic transcripts that are able to produce multiple proteins from one mRNA transcript. In this case, when lactose is required as a sugar source for the bacterium, the three genes of the lac operon can be expressed and their subsequent proteins translated: lacZ, lacY, and lacA. The gene product of lacZ is β-galactosidase which cleaves lactose, a disaccharide, into glucose and galactose. lacY encodes Beta-galactoside permease, a membrane protein which becomes embedded in the cytoplasmic membrane to enable the cellular transport of lactose into the cell. Finally, lacA encodes β-galactoside transacetylase. It would be wasteful to produce enzymes when no lactose is available or if a preferable energy source such as glucose were available. The lac operon uses a two-part control mechanism to ensure that the cell expends energy producing the enzymes encoded by the lac operon only when necessary. In the absence of lactose, the lac repressor, lacI, halts production of the enzymes encoded by the lac operon. The lac repressor is always expressed, unless a co-inducer binds to it. In other words, it is transcribed only in the presence of small co-inducer molecules.
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