Enhancer-dependent transcription involving the promoter specificity factor σ54 is widely distributed amongst bacteria and commonly associated with cell envelope function. For transcription initiation, σ54-RNA polymerase yields open promoter complexes through its remodelling by cognate AAA+ ATPase activators. Since activators can be bypassed in vitro, bypass transcription in vivo could be a source of emergent gene expression along evolutionary pathways yielding new control networks and transcription patterns. At a single test promoter in vivo bypass transcription was not observed. We now use genome-wide transcription profiling, genome-wide mutagenesis and gene over-expression strategies in Escherichia coli, to (i) scope the range of bypass transcription in vivo and (ii) identify genes which might alter bypass transcription in vivo. We find little evidence for pervasive bypass transcription in vivo with only a small subset of σ54 promoters functioning without activators. Results also suggest no one gene limits bypass transcription in vivo, arguing bypass transcription is strongly kept in check. Promoter sequences subject to repression by σ54 were evident, indicating loss of rpoN (encoding σ54) rather than creating rpoN bypass alleles would be one evolutionary route for new gene expression patterns. Finally, cold-shock promoters showed unusual σ54-dependence in vivo not readily correlated with conventional σ54 binding-sites.
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