Global chromosomal structural instability in a subpopulation of starving Escherichia coli cells

PLoS Genet. 2011 Aug;7(8):e1002223. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1002223. Epub 2011 Aug 25.


Copy-number variations (CNVs) constitute very common differences between individual humans and possibly all genomes and may therefore be important fuel for evolution, yet how they form remains elusive. In starving Escherichia coli, gene amplification is induced by stress, controlled by the general stress response. Amplification has been detected only encompassing genes that confer a growth advantage when amplified. We studied the structure of stress-induced gene amplification in starving cells in the Lac assay in Escherichia coli by array comparative genomic hybridization (aCGH), with polymerase chain reaction (pcr) and DNA sequencing to establish the structures generated. About 10% of 300 amplified isolates carried other chromosomal structural change in addition to amplification. Most of these were inversions and duplications associated with the amplification event. This complexity supports a mechanism similar to that seen in human non-recurrent copy number variants. We interpret these complex events in terms of repeated template switching during DNA replication. Importantly, we found a significant occurrence (6 out of 300) of chromosomal structural changes that were apparently not involved in the amplification event. These secondary changes were absent from 240 samples derived from starved cells not carrying amplification, suggesting that amplification happens in a differentiated subpopulation of stressed cells licensed for global chromosomal structural change and genomic instability. These data imply that chromosomal structural changes occur in bursts or showers of instability that may have the potential to drive rapid evolution.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Chromosomal Instability*
  • Chromosome Inversion / genetics
  • Chromosomes, Bacterial / chemistry*
  • Comparative Genomic Hybridization
  • DNA Copy Number Variations / genetics*
  • Escherichia coli / genetics*
  • Escherichia coli / physiology*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Gene Amplification / genetics*
  • Gene Duplication
  • Lac Operon / genetics
  • Stress, Physiological