We have designed an experimental/computational framework for studying complex phenotypes in bacteria.Our framework relies on whole-genome fitness profiling coupled with a module-level analysis to discover pathways that directly affect fitness.As a proof-of-principle, we studied ethanol tolerance in Escherichia coli and we identified key pathways that contribute to this phenotype.We then validated our findings through genetic manipulations, gene-expression profiling, metabolite-level measurements, and stable-isotope labeling.
Elucidating the genetic basis of complex phenotypes remains a fundamental challenge in biology. We have developed a systematic framework for comprehensive genetic analysis of microbial phenotypes. Our approach combines the power of fitness profiling (Girgis et al, 2007; Amini et al, 2009) with the sensitivity of module-level analysis (Goodarzi et al, 2009a) to identify key genetic modules that directly affect a phenotype under study. We applied our technology to ethanol tolerance, a complex phenotype with broad industrial relevance. Ethanol affects a variety of cellular components and pathways, including but not limited to membrane integrity (Dombek and Ingram, 1984), enzyme activities (Millar et al, 1982), and proton flux (D'Amore et al, 1990). Given the diversity of targets, the emergence of ethanol tolerance requires modifications to multiple pathway (D'Amore and Stewart, 1987).
To reveal the genetic basis of ethanol tolerance in Escherichia coli, we used two high-coverage mutant libraries (a transposon library and an overexpression library) to assess the fitness consequences of single-locus perturbations. Each cell in our transposon library contains a random transposon insertion in its genome (Girgis et al, 2007); whereas the cells in the overexpression library carry 1–3 kb genomic fragments cloned into a cloning vector (Amini et al, 2009). We grew these libraries under mild (4% v/v) and harsh (5.5% v/v) ethanol concentrations. On growth, the abundance of each transposon insertion or overexpression mutant changes as a function of its fitness, a process that can be monitored through parallel genetic footprinting and microarray hybridization (Figure 1A). This results in a global fitness profile, where the contribution of each genetic locus to ethanol tolerance can be quantified in parallel. However, in the context of ethanol tolerance and other complex phenotypes, single-locus perturbations typically result in modest changes in fitness. Although these small differences can be amplified through multiple rounds of selection, the number of generations is limited as spontaneous beneficial mutations emerge in the population and cause strong biases in the resulting fitness profiles. To boost our analytical power without introducing these biases in the data, we used a module-level computational method to discover the pathways and components that are strongly associated with the data as opposed to focusing on the genes individually (Goodarzi et al, 2009a). Genes function in the context of pathways and modules and module-level analyses increase statistical power through combining information from multiple genes functioning as part of a given pathway (Subramanian et al, 2005).
The module-level analysis of the fitness scores from both libraries revealed a diverse set of pathways that have a direct function in ethanol tolerance. Some of these pathways, including heat-shock stress response and osmoregulation, are known modifiers of ethanol tolerance; whereas others such as acid-stress response and fimbrial structures are novel pathways. Among our findings was the important function of three regulatory proteins: FNR, ArcA, and CafA. Knocking out FNR/ArcA that upregulates aerobic respiration proteins and TCA cycle components results in a marked increase in ethanol tolerance. Similarly, knocking out CafA, a post-transcriptional regulator of alcohol dehydrogenase, is beneficial for tolerance. Given these observations, we hypothesized that selection for ethanol tolerance can result in higher ethanol degradation.
As a large fraction of discovered pathways belonged to central metabolism, we used metabolomics to evaluate our findings. To directly assess the metabolic consequences of adaptation to ethanol, we evolved ethanol-tolerant strains in minimal media plus glucose for ∼30 and 160 generations. We then compared the steady-state level of metabolites in these strains to that of the wild type (Figure 1B). In agreement with our fitness profiling results, we observed a significant increase in TCA cycle metabolites in one of our ethanol-tolerant strains. Higher concentrations of TCA cycle components along with a high free coenzyme A (CoA) to acetyl-coenzyme A (acetyl-CoA) ratio hinted at the capacity of this strain to metabolize ethanol. To test this hypothesis, we performed stable-isotope labeling on our ethanol-tolerant strain versus wild type. After growth on labeled ethanol, we measured the fraction of metabolites that were labeled at each timepoint (Figure 1B). Our results confirmed that the ethanol-tolerant strain has the capacity to consume ethanol through its conversion into acetyl-CoA and further assimilation in the TCA cycle.
By using a variety of systems-level approaches, we have been able to genetically dissect ethanol tolerance in E. coli. We have shown that fitness profiling, in combination with module-level analysis tools, can serve as a powerful approach for revealing the genetic basis of complex phenotypes. The fact that laboratory evolution ended up using the very modules that we discovered, highlights the biological and adaptive relevance of the proposed framework.
Understanding the genetic basis of adaptation is a central problem in biology. However, revealing the underlying molecular mechanisms has been challenging as changes in fitness may result from perturbations to many pathways, any of which may contribute relatively little. We have developed a combined experimental/computational framework to address this problem and used it to understand the genetic basis of ethanol tolerance in Escherichia coli. We used fitness profiling to measure the consequences of single-locus perturbations in the context of ethanol exposure. A module-level computational analysis was then used to reveal the organization of the contributing loci into cellular processes and regulatory pathways (e.g. osmoregulation and cell-wall biogenesis) whose modifications significantly affect ethanol tolerance. Strikingly, we discovered that a dominant component of adaptation involves metabolic rewiring that boosts intracellular ethanol degradation and assimilation. Through phenotypic and metabolomic analysis of laboratory-evolved ethanol-tolerant strains, we investigated naturally accessible pathways of ethanol tolerance. Remarkably, these laboratory-evolved strains, by and large, follow the same adaptive paths as inferred from our coarse-grained search of the fitness landscape.