The RNA polymerase II core promoter is generally defined to be the sequence that directs the initiation of transcription. This simple definition belies a diverse and complex transcriptional module. There are two major types of core promoters - focused and dispersed. Focused promoters contain either a single transcription start site or a distinct cluster of start sites over several nucleotides, whereas dispersed promoters contain several start sites over 50-100 nucleotides and are typically found in CpG islands in vertebrates. Focused promoters are more ancient and widespread throughout nature than dispersed promoters; however, in vertebrates, dispersed promoters are more common than focused promoters. In addition, core promoters may contain many different sequence motifs, such as the TATA box, BRE, Inr, MTE, DPE, DCE, and XCPE1, that specify different mechanisms of transcription and responses to enhancers. Thus, the core promoter is a sophisticated gateway to transcription that determines which signals will lead to transcription initiation.
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We are grateful to Uwe Ohler, Debra Urwin, Barbara Rattner, Timur Yusufzai, and Alexandra Lusser for critical reading of this manuscript. This work was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (GM041249) to JTK.