In all domains of life, the regulation of transcription by DNA-dependent RNA polymerases (RNAPs) is achieved at the level of initiation to a large extent. Whereas bacterial promoters are recognized by a σ-factor bound to the RNAP, a complex set of transcription factors that recognize specific promoter elements is employed by archaeal and eukaryotic RNAPs. These initiation factors are of particular interest since the regulation of transcription critically relies on initiation rates and thus formation of pre-initiation complexes. The most conserved initiation factor is the TATA-binding protein (TBP), which is of crucial importance for all archaeal-eukaryotic transcription initiation complexes and the only factor required to achieve full rates of initiation in all three eukaryotic and the archaeal transcription systems. Recent structural, biochemical and genome-wide mapping data that focused on the archaeal and specialized RNAP I and III transcription system showed that the involvement and functional importance of TBP is divergent from the canonical role TBP plays in RNAP II transcription. Here, we review the role of TBP in the different transcription systems including a TBP-centric discussion of archaeal and eukaryotic initiation complexes. We furthermore highlight questions concerning the function of TBP that arise from these findings.

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