The architecture of a prototypical bacterial signaling circuit enables a single point mutation to confer novel network properties
OPEN PLoS genetics | 31 Aug 2013
S Ram and M Goulian
Even a single mutation can cause a marked change in a protein’s properties. When the mutant protein functions within a network, complex phenotypes may emerge that are not intrinsic properties of the protein itself. Network architectures that enable such dramatic changes in function from a few mutations remain relatively uncharacterized. We describe a remarkable example of this versatility in the well-studied PhoQ/PhoP bacterial signaling network, which has an architecture found in many two-component systems. We found that a single point mutation that abolishes the phosphatase activity of the sensor kinase PhoQ results in a striking change in phenotype. The mutant responds to stimulus in a bistable manner, as opposed to the wild-type, which has a graded response. Mutant cells in on and off states have different morphologies, and their state is inherited over many generations. Interestingly, external conditions that repress signaling in the wild-type drive the mutant to the on state. Mathematical modeling and experiments suggest that the bistability depends on positive autoregulation of the two key proteins in the circuit, PhoP and PhoQ. The qualitatively different characteristics of the mutant come at a substantial fitness cost. Relative to the off state, the on state has a lower fitness in stationary phase cultures in rich medium (LB). However, due to the high inheritance of the on state, a population of on cells can be epigenetically trapped in a low-fitness state. Our results demonstrate the remarkable versatility of the prototypical two-component signaling architecture and highlight the tradeoffs in the particular case of the PhoQ/PhoP system.
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