Predicting strength and function for promoters of the Escherichia coli alternative sigma factor, σE
Sequenced bacterial genomes provide a wealth of information but little understanding of transcriptional regulatory circuits largely because accurate prediction of promoters is difficult. We examined two important issues for accurate promoter prediction: (1) the ability to predict promoter strength and (2) the sequence properties that distinguish between active and weak/inactive promoters. We addressed promoter prediction using natural core promoters recognized by the well-studied alternative sigma factor, Escherichia coli σE, as a representative of group 4 σs, the largest σ group. To evaluate the contribution of sequence to promoter strength and function, we used modular position weight matrix models comprised of each promoter motif and a penalty score for suboptimal motif location. We find that a combination of select modules is moderately predictive of promoter strength and that imposing minimal motif scores distinguished active from weak/inactive promoters. The combined -35/-10 score is the most important predictor of activity. Our models also identified key sequence features associated with active promoters. A conserved “AAC” motif in the -35 region is likely to be a general predictor of function for promoters recognized by group 4 σs. These results provide valuable insights into sequences that govern promoter strength, distinguish active and inactive promoters for the first time, and are applicable to both in vivo and in vitro measures of promoter strength.