Transcription is initiated at regions of DNA called promoters, which are typically 20 to 150 base pairs long, depending on the organism. The sequence of bases at a promoter is recognized by RNA polymerase, the enzyme that synthesizes RNA.

The RNA polymerases in bacteria, as well as in viruses in bacteria, are able to recognize particular promoter sequences without the help of any other cellular proteins. However, in eukaryotes and Archaea, other proteins, called initiation factors, recognize the promoter sequence, "recruit" RNA polymerase and other proteins, help the RNA polymerase bind to the DNA, and regulate the enzyme's activity.

RNA polymerase is assembled on promoters in a particular orientation (Figure 1A). This allows RNA synthesis to start at a precise location and proceed in only one direction, "downstream" toward the gene (Figure 1B).

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