Stochastic switching of a bistable genetic circuit represents a potential cost-saving strategy for adaptation to environmental challenges. This study reports that stochastic switching of a monostable circuit can be sufficient to mediate reversible adaptation in E. coli.
Stochastic switching of a monostable circuit mediated the adaptation of the engineered OSU12-hisC Escherichia coli strain to histidine starvation.The population shift of OSU12-hisC was accompanied by growth recovery and was reversible upon histidine addition. This is the first report of adaptation mediated by stochastic switching based on a monostable structure.Weak directionality in stochastic switching initiated the population shift and the fast growth of the occasionally appearing fit cells drove the later stages of adaptation.Adaptation of OSU12-hisC was resulted from the enhanced expression of the structural genes within the native His operon, along with the transcriptional reorganization of a large number of genes.
The fundamental mechanisms underlying adaptations can be divided into responsive switching and stochastic switching (Kussell and Leibler, 2005). Responsive switching is generally considered as resulting from evolved regulatory units, such as operons and regulons, which enable immediate adaptation (Jacob and Monod, 1961). However, as cells are subject to a wide range of both genetic and environmental perturbations that damage the specificity or efficiency of regulatory systems (Carroll, 2005; Crombach and Hogeweg, 2008), the limited number of regulatory units that can evolve and remain functional may not be sufficient to completely protect cell populations from the danger of extinction. Whether and how cells are able to survive external perturbations, when the corresponding regulatory units are absent or have been genetically disrupted, is an open question of great importance.
Recent studies showed the stochastic switching provided cells a huge potential for sustenance under severe conditions via a so-called ‘bet-hedging' strategy. The experimental evidence was generally based on a bistable genetic structure that fixed stochastically appearing fit state thus limiting further random switching (Kussell and Leibler, 2005; Acar et al, 2008). In contrast to bistable gene expression, monostable gene expression is much more common (Newman et al, 2006) and does not rely on a specific complex genetic architecture. Since a monostable structure has no fixation effect, the fit cells that would appear stochastically tend to return to the original steady state (i.e., unfit state). To achieve a population shift from a maladaptive state (but stable) to an adaptive state (but unstable), a significant increase in fitness (i.e., growth rate) of the fit cells is necessary. Otherwise, the random switching will mask occasionally occurring adaptive transitions and lead to an unchanged population at the stable but maladaptive state. Whether adaptation can be achieved by stochastic switching based on a monostable structure is however an open issue.
To address this question, we applied an engineered E. coli strain, OSU12-hisC, carrying a foreign gene circuit encompassing a physiologically functional gene, hisC, replaced from its native chromosomal locus (Figure 1A). Consequently, hisC in OSU12-hisC is no longer responsive to the native regulation (His operon) that senses histidine depletion. Instead, the foreign gene circuit provided a monostable structure for hisC's stochastic switching. The green fluorescent protein (gfpuv5) was co-expressed with hisC for the quantitative evaluation of HisC in single cells. The upstream regulation of TetR, whose expression level was reported by the red fluorescent protein (dsred.T4), was introduced to achieve the inducible GFP (HisC) level. The full induction of TetR by IPTG was applied to avoid any possible upstream noise that caused by the abundance of endogenous LacI.
Microscopic observation revealed that the OSU12-hisC cells showed stronger green fluorescence after histidine depletion (Figure 1B), which suggested an increased expression level of hisC. Population analysis using flow cytometry showed that the distributions of both GFP concentration and GFP bias (GFP/RFP ratio) in OSU12-hisC shifted towards a higher level in histidine-free conditions (Figure 1C and D), whereas, the depletion caused only a slight change in distributions of OSU11, a control strain carrying both the same engineered genetic circuit and an intact His operon, including the hisC gene in its native context. Repeated experiments revealed that the increases in both GFP concentration (∼2.1 folds) and GFP bias (∼1.5 folds) due to histidine depletion were highly significant (P<0.005, N=6) in OSU12-hisC. In particular, the increased GFP bias strongly suggested that the change in gene expression occurred specifically in the rewired hisC (i.e., GFP) but not in all genes (e.g., RFP). Furthermore, both the growth recovery accompanied population shift and the stress relaxation triggered restoration were clearly observed. It strongly indicated that the adaptation was mediated by stochastic switching of hisC under the monostable control.
Analysis on microcolonies' formation (Figure 4A) showed stochastic behaviour and directionality in individual cells. Variation in cellular GFP level was clearly observed in individual cells. Stochastic switching of hisC was verified according to the random changes in GFP bias along with the cell division under histidine-rich conditions (Figure 4B). On the other hand, the microcolonies formed under the histidine-free conditions tended to the higher level of GFP bias were observed (Figure 4B). The directional tendency favoured the high GFP (HisC) level was evidently detected in the first 2 h after histidine depletion, which resulted in a population shift (Figure 4C). In contrast, the distributions of microcolonies grown in histidine-rich conditions kept steady, due to the randomized directions of stochastic switching (Figure 4C). Further analysis showed that the stochastic fluctuations in the initial state had an important role not only in fate decision (i.e., whether to grow) but also in the directionality of the stochastic switch.
Microarray analysis showed the adaptation of OSU12-hisC was resulted from the enhanced expression of the structural genes within the native His operon, along with the transcriptional reorganization of a large number of genes. In summary, in contrast to bistable structures, the monostable structure used here did not fix the phenotype but allowed the cells to decide where to go. Taken together, the findings suggest that bacteria do not necessarily need to evolve signalling mechanisms to control gene expression appropriately, even for essential genes.
Stochastic switching is considered as a cost-saving strategy for adaptation to environmental challenges. We show here that stochastic switching of a monostable circuit can mediate the adaptation of the engineered OSU12-hisC Escherichia coli strain to histidine starvation. In this strain, the hisC gene was deleted from the His operon and placed under the control of a monostable foreign promoter. In response to histidine depletion, the OSU12-hisC population shifted to a higher HisC expression level, which is beneficial under starving conditions but is not favoured by the monostable circuit. The population shift was accompanied by growth recovery and was reversible upon histidine addition. A weak directionality in stochastic switching of hisC was observed in growing microcolonies under histidine-free conditions. Directionality and fate decision were in part dependent on the initial cellular status. Finally, microarray analysis indicated that OSU12-hisC reorganized its transcriptome to reach the appropriate physiological state upon starvation. These findings suggest that bacteria do not necessarily need to evolve signalling mechanisms to control gene expression appropriately, even for essential genes.