Mammalian genes are transcribed with widely different bursting kinetics
In prokaryotes and eukaryotes, most genes appear to be transcribed during short periods called transcriptional bursts, interspersed by silent intervals. We describe how such bursts generate gene-specific temporal patterns of messenger RNA (mRNA) synthesis in mammalian cells. To monitor transcription at high temporal resolution, we established various gene trap cell lines and transgenic cell lines expressing a short-lived luciferase protein from an unstable mRNA, and recorded bioluminescence in real time in single cells. Mathematical modeling identified gene-specific on- and off-switching rates in transcriptional activity and mean numbers of mRNAs produced during the bursts. Transcriptional kinetics were markedly altered by cis-regulatory DNA elements. Our analysis demonstrated that bursting kinetics are highly gene-specific, reflecting refractory periods during which genes stay inactive for a certain time before switching on again.