Combining in vivo FRET with time-varying stimuli, such as steps, ramps, and sinusoids allowed deduction of the molecular mechanisms underlying cellular signal processing.The bacterial chemotaxis pathway can be described as a two-module feedback circuit, the transfer functions of which we have characterized quantitatively by experiment. Model-driven experimental design allowed the use of a single FRET pair for measurements of both transfer functions of the pathway.The adaptation module's transfer function revealed that feedback near steady state is weak, consistent with high sensitivity to shallow gradients, but also strong steady-state fluctuations in pathway output.The measured response to oscillatory stimuli defines the frequency band over which the chemotaxis system can compute time derivatives.

In searching for better environments, bacteria sample their surroundings by random motility, and make temporal comparisons of experienced sensory cues to bias their movement toward favorable directions (Berg and Brown, 1972). Thus, the problem of sensing spatial gradients is reduced to time-derivative computations, carried out by a signaling pathway that is well characterized at the molecular level in Escherichia coli. Here, we study the physiology of this signal processing system in vivo by fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) experiments in which live cells are stimulated by time-varying chemoeffector signals. By measuring FRET between the active response regulator of the pathway CheY-P and its phosphatase CheZ, each labeled with GFP variants, we obtain a readout that is directly proportional to pathway activity (Sourjik et al, 2007). We analyze the measured response functions in terms of mechanistic models of signaling, and discuss functional consequences of the observed quantitative characteristics.

Experiments are guided by a coarse-grained modular model (Tu et al, 2008) of the sensory network (Figure 1), in which we identify two important ‘transfer functions': one corresponding to the receptor–kinase complex, which responds to changes in input ligand concentration on a fast time scale, and another corresponding to the adaptation system, which provides negative feedback, opposing the effect of ligand on a slower time scale. For the receptor module, we calibrate an allosteric MWC-type model of the receptor–kinase complex by FRET measurements of the ‘open-loop' transfer function G([L],m) using step stimuli. This calibration provides a basis for using the same FRET readout (between CheY-P and CheZ) to further study properties of the adaptation module.

It is well known that adaptation in E. coli's chemotaxis system uses integral feedback, which guarantees exact restoration of the baseline activity after transient responses to step stimuli (Barkai and Leibler, 1997; Yi et al, 2000). However, the output of time-derivative computations during smoothly varying stimuli depends not only on the presence of integral feedback, but also on what is being integrated. As this integrand can in general be any function of the output, we represent it by a black-box function F(a) in our model, and set out to determine its shape by experiments with time-varying stimuli.

We first apply exponential ramp stimuli—waveforms in which the logarithm of the stimulus level varies linearly with time, at a fixed rate r. It was shown many years ago that during such a stimulus, the kinase output of the pathway changes to a new constant value, ac that is dependent on the applied ramp rate, r (Block et al, 1983). A plot of ac versus r (Figure 5A) can thus be considered as an output of time-derivative computations by the network, and could also be used to study the ‘gradient sensitivity' of bacteria traveling at constant speeds.

To obtain the feedback transfer function, F(a), we apply a simple coordinate transformation, identified using our model, to the same ramp-response data (Figure 5B). This function reveals how the temporal rate of change of the feedback signal m depends on the current output signal a. The shape of this function is analyzed using a biochemical reaction scheme, from which in vivo kinetic parameters of the feedback enzymes, CheR and CheB, are extracted. The fitted Michaelis constants for these enzymatic reactions are small compared with the steady-state abundance of their substrates, thus indicating that these enzymes operate close to saturation in vivo. The slope of the function near steady state can be used to assess the strength of feedback, and to compute the relaxation time of the system, τm. Relaxation is found to be slow (i.e. large τm), consistent with large fluctuations about the steady-state activity caused by the near-saturation kinetics of the feedback enzymes (Emonet and Cluzel, 2008).

Finally, exponential sine-wave stimuli are used to map out the system's frequency response (Figure 5C). The measured data points for both the amplitude and phase of the response are found to be in excellent agreement with model predictions based on parameters from the independently measured step and ramp responses. No curve fitting was required to obtain this agreement. Although the amplitude response as a function of frequency resembles a first-order high-pass filter with a well-defined cutoff frequency, νm, we point out that the chemotaxis pathway is actually a low-pass filter if the time derivative of the input is viewed as the input signal. In this latter perspective, νm defines an upper bound for the frequency band over which time-derivative computations can be carried out.

The two types of measurements yield complementary information regarding time-derivative computations by E. coli. The ramp-responses characterize the asymptotically constant output when a temporal gradient is held fixed over extended periods. Interestingly, the ramp responses do not depend on receptor cooperativity, but only on properties of the adaptation system, and thus can be used to reveal the in vivo adaptation kinetics, even outside the linear regime of the kinase response. The frequency response is highly relevant in considering spatial searches in the real world, in which experienced gradients are not held fixed in time. The characteristic cutoff frequency νm is found by working within the linear regime of the kinase response, and depends on parameters from both modules (it increases with both cooperativity in the receptor module, and the strength of feedback in the adaptation module).

Both ramp responses and sine-wave responses were measured at two different temperatures (22 and 32°C), and found to differ significantly. Both the slope of F(a) near steady state, from ramp experiments, and the characteristic cutoff frequency, from sine-wave experiments, were higher by a factor of ∼3 at 32°C. Fits of the enzymatic model to F(a) suggest that temperature affects the maximal velocity (Vmax) more strongly than the Michaelis constants (Km) for CheR and CheB.

Successful application of inter-molecular FRET in live cells using GFP variants always requires some degree of serendipity. Genetic fusions to these bulky fluorophores can impair the function of the original proteins, and even when fusions are functional, efficient FRET still requires the fused fluorophores to come within the small (<10 nm) Förster radius on interactions between the labeled proteins. Thus, when a successful FRET pair is identified, it is desirable to make the most of it. We have shown here that combined with careful temporal control of input stimuli, and appropriately calibrated models, a single FRET pair can be used to study the structure of multiple transfer functions within a signaling network.

The Escherichia coli chemotaxis-signaling pathway computes time derivatives of chemoeffector concentrations. This network features modules for signal reception/amplification and robust adaptation, with sensing of chemoeffector gradients determined by the way in which these modules are coupled in vivo. We characterized these modules and their coupling by using fluorescence resonance energy transfer to measure intracellular responses to time-varying stimuli. Receptor sensitivity was characterized by step stimuli, the gradient sensitivity by exponential ramp stimuli, and the frequency response by exponential sine-wave stimuli. Analysis of these data revealed the structure of the feedback transfer function linking the amplification and adaptation modules. Feedback near steady state was found to be weak, consistent with strong fluctuations and slow recovery from small perturbations. Gradient sensitivity and frequency response both depended strongly on temperature. We found that time derivatives can be computed by the chemotaxis system for input frequencies below 0.006 Hz at 22°C and below 0.018 Hz at 32°C. Our results show how dynamic input–output measurements, time honored in physiology, can serve as powerful tools in deciphering cell-signaling mechanisms.