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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Physical constraints on the establishment of intracellular spatial gradients in bacteria

Carolina Tropini12, Naveed Rabbani2 and Kerwyn Casey Huang2*

Author affiliations

1 Biophysics Program, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA

2 Department of Bioengineering, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Biophysics 2012, 5:17  doi:10.1186/2046-1682-5-17

Published: 29 August 2012



Bacteria dynamically regulate their intricate intracellular organization involving proteins that facilitate cell division, motility, and numerous other processes. Consistent with this sophisticated organization, bacteria are able to create asymmetries and spatial gradients of proteins by localizing signaling pathway components. We use mathematical modeling to investigate the biochemical and physical constraints on the generation of intracellular gradients by the asymmetric localization of a source and a sink.


We present a systematic computational analysis of the effects of other regulatory mechanisms, such as synthesis, degradation, saturation, and cell growth. We also demonstrate that gradients can be established in a variety of bacterial morphologies such as rods, crescents, spheres, branched and constricted cells.


Taken together, these results suggest that gradients are a robust and potentially common mechanism for providing intracellular spatial cues.