Transcription termination has evolved to proceed through diverse mechanisms. For several classes of terminators, multiple models have been debatably proposed. Recent single-molecule studies on bacterial terminators have resolved several long-standing controversies. First, termination mode or outcome is twofold rather than single. RNA is released alone before DNA or together with DNA from RNA polymerase (RNAP), i.e. with RNA release for termination, RNAP retains on or dissociates off DNA, respectively. The concomitant release, described in textbooks, results in one-step decomposition of transcription complexes, and this ‘decomposing termination’ prevails at ρ factor-dependent terminators. Contrastingly, the sequential release was recently discovered abundantly from RNA hairpin-dependent intrinsic terminations. RNA-only release allows RNAP to diffuse on DNA in both directions and recycle for reinitiation. This ‘recycling termination’ enables one-dimensional reinitiation, which would be more expeditious than three-dimensional reinitiation by RNAP dissociated at decomposing termination. Second, while both recycling and decomposing terminations occur at a hairpin-dependent terminator, four termination mechanisms compatibly operate at a ρ-dependent terminator with ρ in alternative modes and even intrinsically without ρ. RNA-bound catch-up ρ mediates recycling termination first and decomposing termination later, while RNAP-prebound stand-by ρ invokes only decomposing termination slowly. Without ρ, decomposing termination occurs slightly and sluggishly. These four mechanisms operate on distinct timescales, providing orderly fail-safes. The stand-by mechanism is benefited by terminational pause prolongation and modulated by accompanying riboswitches more greatly than the catch-up mechanisms. Conclusively, any mechanism alone is insufficient to perfect termination, and multiple mechanisms operate compatibly to achieve maximum possible efficiency under separate controls.

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