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PLOS Genetics  2012 

Pre-Disposition and Epigenetics Govern Variation in Bacterial Survival upon Stress

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1003148

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Bacteria suffer various stresses in their unpredictable environment. In response, clonal populations may exhibit cell-to-cell variation, hypothetically to maximize their survival. The origins, propagation, and consequences of this variability remain poorly understood. Variability persists through cell division events, yet detailed lineage information for individual stress-response phenotypes is scarce. This work combines time-lapse microscopy and microfluidics to uniformly manipulate the environmental changes experienced by clonal bacteria. We quantify the growth rates and RpoH-driven heat-shock responses of individual Escherichia coli within their lineage context, stressed by low streptomycin concentrations. We observe an increased variation in phenotypes, as different as survival from death, that can be traced to asymmetric division events occurring prior to stress induction. Epigenetic inheritance contributes to the propagation of the observed phenotypic variation, resulting in three-fold increase of the RpoH-driven expression autocorrelation time following stress induction. We propose that the increased permeability of streptomycin-stressed cells serves as a positive feedback loop underlying this epigenetic effect. Our results suggest that stochasticity, pre-disposition, and epigenetic effects are at the source of stress-induced variability. Unlike in a bet-hedging strategy, we observe that cells with a higher investment in maintenance, measured as the basal RpoH transcriptional activity prior to antibiotic treatment, are more likely to give rise to stressed, frail progeny.


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