Background: Despite identical genotypes and seemingly uniform environments, stochastic gene expression and other dynamic intracellular processes can produce considerable phenotypic diversity within clonal microbes. One trait that provides a good model to explore the molecular basis of stochastic variation is the timing of host lysis by bacteriophage (phage).
Results: Individual lysis events of thermally-inducible λ lysogens were observed using a temperature-controlled perfusion chamber mounted on an inverted microscope. Both mean lysis time (MLT) and its associated standard deviation (SD) were estimated. Using the SD as a measure of lysis time stochasticity, we showed that lysogenic cells in controlled environments varied widely in lysis times, and that the level of lysis time stochasticity depended on allelic variation in the holin sequence, late promoter (pR') activity, and host growth rate. In general, the MLT was positively correlated with the SD. Both lower pR' activities and lower host growth rates resulted in larger SDs. Results from premature lysis, induced by adding KCN at different time points after lysogen induction, showed a negative correlation between the timing of KCN addition and lysis time stochasticity.
Conclusions: Taken together with results published by others, we conclude that a large fraction of λ lysis time stochasticity is the result of random events following the expression and diffusion of the holin protein. Consequently, factors influencing the timing of reaching critical holin concentrations in the cell membrane, such as holin production rate, strongly influence the mean lysis time and the lysis time stochasticity.