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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

The last generation of bacterial growth in limiting nutrient

Anat Bren, Yuval Hart, Erez Dekel, Daniel Koster and Uri Alon*

Author Affiliations

Department of Molecular Cell Biology, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel

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BMC Systems Biology 2013, 7:27  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-7-27

Published: 25 March 2013



Bacterial growth as a function of nutrients has been studied for decades, but is still not fully understood. In particular, the growth laws under dynamically changing environments have been difficult to explore, because of the rapidly changing conditions. Here, we address this challenge by means of a robotic assay and measure bacterial growth rate, promoter activity and substrate level at high temporal resolution across the entire growth curve in batch culture. As a model system, we study E. coli growing under nitrogen or carbon limitation, and explore the dynamics in the last generation of growth where nutrient levels can drop rapidly.


We find that growth stops abruptly under limiting nitrogen or carbon, but slows gradually when nutrients are not limiting. By measuring growth rate at a 3 min time resolution, and inferring the instantaneous substrate level, s, we find that the reduction in growth rate μ under nutrient limitation follows Monod’s law, <a onClick="popup('','MathML',630,470);return false;" target="_blank" href="">View MathML</a>. By following promoter activity of different genes we found that the abrupt stop of growth under nitrogen or carbon limitation is accompanied by a pulse-like up-regulation of the expression of genes in the relevant nutrient assimilation pathways. We further find that sharp stop of growth is conditional on the presence of regulatory proteins in the assimilation pathway.


The observed sharp stop of growth accompanied by a pulsed expression of assimilation genes allows bacteria to compensate for the drop in nutrients, suggesting a strategy used by the cells to prolong exponential growth under limiting substrate.

Bacterial growth; Monod law; Gene expression; Nutrient limitation; Nitrogen assimilation