Stochastic Pulse Regulation in Bacterial Stress Response

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Science  06 Oct 2011:
DOI: 10.1126/science.1208144


Gene regulatory circuits can use dynamic, and even stochastic, strategies to respond to environmental conditions. We examined activation of the general stress response mediated by the alternative sigma factor, σB, in individual Bacillus subtilis cells. We observed that energy stress activates σB in discrete stochastic pulses, with increasing levels of stress leading to higher pulse frequencies. By perturbing and rewiring the endogenous system, we found that this behavior results from three key features of the σB circuit: an ultrasensitive phosphorylation switch; stochasticity (“noise”), which activates that switch; and a mixed (positive and negative) transcriptional feedback, which can both amplify a pulse and switch it off. Together, these results show how prokaryotes encode signals using stochastic pulse frequency modulation through a compact regulatory architecture.