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Open Access Research article

Phenotypic heterogeneity in mycobacterial stringent response

Sayantari Ghosh1, Kamakshi Sureka2, Bhaswar Ghosh3, Indrani Bose1*, Joyoti Basu2 and Manikuntala Kundu2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Physics, Bose Institute, Kolkata, India

2 Department of Chemistry, Bose Institute, Kolkata, India

3 Centre for Applied Mathematics and Computational Science, Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, India

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BMC Systems Biology 2011, 5:18  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-5-18

Published: 27 January 2011



A common survival strategy of microorganisms subjected to stress involves the generation of phenotypic heterogeneity in the isogenic microbial population enabling a subset of the population to survive under stress. In a recent study, a mycobacterial population of M. smegmatis was shown to develop phenotypic heterogeneity under nutrient depletion. The observed heterogeneity is in the form of a bimodal distribution of the expression levels of the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) as reporter with the gfp fused to the promoter of the rel gene. The stringent response pathway is initiated in the subpopulation with high rel activity.


In the present study, we characterise quantitatively the single cell promoter activity of the three key genes, namely, mprA, sigE and rel, in the stringent response pathway with gfp as the reporter. The origin of bimodality in the GFP distribution lies in two stable expression states, i.e., bistability. We develop a theoretical model to study the dynamics of the stringent response pathway. The model incorporates a recently proposed mechanism of bistability based on positive feedback and cell growth retardation due to protein synthesis. Based on flow cytometry data, we establish that the distribution of GFP levels in the mycobacterial population at any point of time is a linear superposition of two invariant distributions, one Gaussian and the other lognormal, with only the coefficients in the linear combination depending on time. This allows us to use a binning algorithm and determine the time variation of the mean protein level, the fraction of cells in a subpopulation and also the coefficient of variation, a measure of gene expression noise.


The results of the theoretical model along with a comprehensive analysis of the flow cytometry data provide definitive evidence for the coexistence of two subpopulations with overlapping protein distributions.