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Cell-to-cell diversity in protein levels of a gene driven by a tetracycline inducible promoter

Olli-Pekka Smolander1, Meenakshisundaram Kandhavelu1, Henrik Mannerström1, Eero Lihavainen1, Shanmugapriya Kalaichelvan1, Shannon Healy13, Olli Yli-Harja14, Matti Karp25 and Andre S Ribeiro1*

Author affiliations

1 Department of Signal Processing, Tampere University of Technology, P.O. Box 553, FIN - 33101 Tampere, Finland

2 Department of Chemistry and Bioengineering, Tampere University of Technology, P. O. Box 541, FIN 33101 Tampere, Finland

3 Manitoba Institute of Cell Biology, Winnipeg, MB, Canada

4 Institute for Systems Biology, Seattle, WA, USA

5 Biosensors Competence Centre, Tampere, Finland

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Citation and License

BMC Molecular Biology 2011, 12:21  doi:10.1186/1471-2199-12-21

Published: 14 May 2011



Gene expression in Escherichia coli is regulated by several mechanisms. We measured in single cells the expression level of a single copy gene coding for green fluorescent protein (GFP), integrated into the genome and driven by a tetracycline inducible promoter, for varying induction strengths. Also, we measured the transcriptional activity of a tetracycline inducible promoter controlling the transcription of a RNA with 96 binding sites for MS2-GFP.


The distribution of GFP levels in single cells is found to change significantly as induction reaches high levels, causing the Fano factor of the cells' protein levels to increase with mean level, beyond what would be expected from a Poisson-like process of RNA transcription. In agreement, the Fano factor of the cells' number of RNA molecules target for MS2-GFP follows a similar trend. The results provide evidence that the dynamics of the promoter complex formation, namely, the variability in its duration from one transcription event to the next, explains the change in the distribution of expression levels in the cell population with induction strength.


The results suggest that the open complex formation of the tetracycline inducible promoter, in the regime of strong induction, affects significantly the dynamics of RNA production due to the variability of its duration from one event to the next.