Research output: Contribution to journal › Article
Bacteria have elaborate signalling mechanisms to ensure a behavioural response that is most likely to enhance survival in a changing environment. It is becoming increasingly apparent that as part of this response, bacteria are capable of cell differentiation and can generate multiple, mutually exclusive co-existing cell states. These cell states are often associated with multicellular processes that bring benefit to the community as a whole but which may be, paradoxically, disadvantageous to an individual subpopulation. How this process of cell differentiation is controlled is intriguing and remains a largely open question. In this paper, we consider an important aspect of cell differentiation that is known to occur in the Gram-positive bacterium Bacillus subtilis: we investigate the role of two master regulators DegU and Spo0A in the control of extra-cellular protease production. Recent work in this area focussed the on role of DegU in this process and suggested that transient effects in protein production were the drivers of cell-response heterogeneity. Here, using a combination of mathematical modelling, analysis and stochastic simulations, we provide a complementary analysis of this regulatory system that investigates the roles of both DegU and Spo0A in extra-cellular protease production. In doing so, we present a mechanism for bimodality, or system heterogeneity, without the need for a bistable switch in the underlying regulatory network. Moreover, our analysis leads us to conclude that this heterogeneity is in fact a persistent, stable feature. Our results suggest that system response is divided into three zones: low and high signal levels induce a unimodal or undifferentiated response from the cell population with all cells OFF and ON, respectively for exoprotease production. However, for intermediate levels of signal, a heterogeneous response is predicted with a spread of activity levels, representing typical "bet-hedging" behaviour.