Research Article

Lost in Transition: Start-Up of Glycolysis Yields Subpopulations of Nongrowing Cells

Science  28 Feb 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6174,
DOI: 10.1126/science.1245114

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Structured Abstract


Cells use multilayered regulatory systems to respond adequately to changing environments or perturbations. Failure in regulation underlies cellular malfunctioning, loss of fitness, or disease. How molecular components dynamically interact to give rise to robust and adaptive responses is not well understood. Here, we studied how the model eukaryote Saccharomyces cerevisiae can cope with transition to high glucose levels, a failure of which results in metabolic malfunctioning and growth arrest.

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Initiation of glycolysis can have two outcomes. Upon glucose availability, glycolysis can end up in either a functional steady state or an unviable imbalanced state with imbalanced fluxes between ATP-consuming (Vupper) and ATP-producing steps (Vlower). In wild-type yeast, the transient activation of trehalose cycling pushes glycolysis toward the viable steady state. Failure to do so results in metabolic malfunctioning, as observed in mutants in trehalose biosynthesis (tps1Δ).


We combined experimental and modeling approaches to unravel the mechanisms used by yeast to cope with sudden glucose availability. We studied growth characteristics and metabolic state at population and single-cell levels (through flow cytometry and colony plating) of the wild type and of mutants unable to transit properly to excess glucose; such mutants are defective in trehalose synthesis, a disaccharide associated with stress resistance. Dynamic 13C tracer enrichment was used to estimate dynamic intracellular fluxes immediately after glucose addition. Mathematical modeling was used to interpret and generalize results and to suggest subsequent experiments.


The failure to cope with glucose is caused by imbalanced reactions in glycolysis, the essential pathway in energy metabolism in most organisms. In the failure mode, the first steps of glycolysis carry more flux than the downstream steps, resulting in accumulating intermediates at constant low levels of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and inorganic phosphate. We found that cells with such an unbalanced glycolysis coexist with vital cells with normal glycolytic function. Spontaneous, nongenetic metabolic variability among individual cells determines which state is reached and consequently which cells survive. In mutants of trehalose metabolism, only 0.01% of the cells started to grow on glucose; in the wild type, the success rate was still only 93% (i.e., 7% of wild-type yeast did not properly start up glycolysis). Mathematical models predicted that the dynamics of inorganic phosphate is a key determinant in successful transition to glucose, and that phosphate release through ATP hydrolysis reduces the probability of reaching an imbalanced state. 13C-labeling experiments confirmed the hypothesis that trehalose metabolism constitutes a futile cycle that would provide proper phosphate balance: Upon a glucose pulse, almost 30% of the glucose is transiently shuttled into trehalose metabolism.


Our work reveals how cell fate can be determined by glycolytic dynamics combined with cell heterogeneity purely at the metabolic level. Specific regulatory mechanisms are required to initiate the glycolytic pathway; in yeast, trehalose cycling pushes glycolysis transiently into the right direction, after which cycling stops. The coexistence of two modes of glycolysis—an imbalanced state and the normal functional state—arises from the fundamental design of glycolysis. This makes the imbalanced state a generic risk for humans as well, extending our fundamental knowledge of this central pathway that is dysfunctional in diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

Metabolic Heterogeneity

We commonly think of genetic or epigenetic sources of variation in cells and individuals. However, biochemical regulatory pathways can potentially also exist in multiple stable states and confer variable phenotypes on cells in a population. Van Heerden et al. (10.1126/science.1245114, published online 16 January) demonstrate such a phenomenon in yeast cells. Two distinct types of cell were observed that differed in the state of glycolysis, the central pathway in energy metabolism for these cells. This allowed some members of a population of cells to survive changes in glucose concentrations, whereas most cells did not.


Cells need to adapt to dynamic environments. Yeast that fail to cope with dynamic changes in the abundance of glucose can undergo growth arrest. We show that this failure is caused by imbalanced reactions in glycolysis, the essential pathway in energy metabolism in most organisms. The imbalance arises largely from the fundamental design of glycolysis, making this state of glycolysis a generic risk. Cells with unbalanced glycolysis coexisted with vital cells. Spontaneous, nongenetic metabolic variability among individual cells determines which state is reached and, consequently, which cells survive. Transient ATP (adenosine 5′-triphosphate) hydrolysis through futile cycling reduces the probability of reaching the imbalanced state. Our results reveal dynamic behavior of glycolysis and indicate that cell fate can be determined by heterogeneity purely at the metabolic level.

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