Collective decision making in bacterial viruses

Biophys J. 2008 Sep 15;95(6):2673-80. doi: 10.1529/biophysj.108.133694. Epub 2008 Jun 20.


For many bacterial viruses, the choice of whether to kill host cells or enter a latent state depends on the multiplicity of coinfection. Here, we present a mathematical theory of how bacterial viruses can make collective decisions concerning the fate of infected cells. We base our theory on mechanistic models of gene regulatory dynamics. Unlike most previous work, we treat the copy number of viral genes as variable. Increasing the viral copy number increases the rate of transcription of viral mRNAs. When viral regulation of cell fate includes nonlinear feedback loops, very small changes in transcriptional rates can lead to dramatic changes in steady-state gene expression. Hence, we prove that deterministic decisions can be reached, e.g., lysis or latency, depending on the cellular multiplicity of infection within a broad class of gene regulatory models of viral decision-making. Comparisons of a parameterized version of the model with molecular studies of the decision structure in the temperate bacteriophage lambda are consistent with our conclusions. Because the model is general, it suggests that bacterial viruses can respond adaptively to changes in population dynamics, and that features of collective decision-making in viruses are evolvable life history traits.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Bacteriophage lambda / genetics
  • Bacteriophage lambda / metabolism
  • Bacteriophage lambda / physiology
  • Bacteriophages / genetics
  • Bacteriophages / metabolism
  • Bacteriophages / physiology*
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Viral
  • Kinetics
  • Lysogeny / physiology
  • Models, Biological*
  • Mutation
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • Virus Attachment


  • RNA, Messenger