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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Source and regulation of flux variability in Escherichia coli

Magdalena San Román1, Héctor Cancela2 and Luis Acerenza1*

Author Affiliations

1 Systems Biology Laboratory, Faculty of Sciences, Universidad de la República, Iguá 4225, Montevideo 11400, Uruguay

2 Computer Science Institute, Faculty of Engineering, Universidad de la República, Montevideo, Uruguay

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BMC Systems Biology 2014, 8:67  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-8-67

Published: 14 June 2014



Metabolic responses are essential for the adaptation of microorganisms to changing environmental conditions. The repertoire of flux responses that the metabolic network can display in different external conditions may be quantified applying flux variability analysis to genome-scale metabolic reconstructions.


A procedure is developed to classify and quantify the sources of flux variability. We apply the procedure to the latest Escherichia coli metabolic reconstruction, in glucose minimal medium, with an additional constraint to account for the mechanism coordinating carbon and nitrogen utilization mediated by α-ketoglutarate. Flux variability can be decomposed into three components: internal, external and growth variability. Unexpectedly, growth variability is the only significant component of flux variability in the physiological ranges of glucose, oxygen and ammonia uptake rates. To obtain substantial increases in metabolic flexibility, E. coli must decrease growth rate to suboptimal values. This growth-flexibility trade-off gives a straightforward interpretation to recent work showing that most overall cell-to-cell flux variability in a population of E. coli can be attained sampling a small number of enzymes most likely to constrain cell growth. Importantly, it provides an explanation for the global reorganization occurring in metabolic networks during adaptations to environmental challenges. The calculations were repeated with a pathogenic strain and an old reconstruction of the commensal strain, having less than 50% of the reactions of the latest reconstruction, obtaining the same general conclusions.


In E. coli growing on glucose, growth variability is the only significant component of flux variability for all physiological conditions explored. Increasing flux variability requires reducing growth to suboptimal values. The growth-flexibility trade-off operates in physiological and evolutionary adaptations, and provides an explanation for the global reorganization occurring during adaptations to environmental challenges. The results obtained do not rely on the knowledge of kinetic and regulatory details of the system and are highly robust to incomplete or incorrect knowledge of the reaction network.

Metabolic network; Flux variability; Metabolic flexibility; Physiological adaptation; Evolutionary adaptation; Systems biology