Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron (Bt) is a human colonic symbiont that degrades many different complex carbohydrates (glycans), the identities and amounts of which are likely to change frequently and abruptly from meal-to-meal. To understand how this organism reacts to dynamic growth conditions, we challenged it with a series of different glycan mixtures and measured responses involved in glycan catabolism. Our results demonstrate that individual Bt cells can simultaneously respond to multiple glycans and that responses to new glycans are extremely rapid. The presence of alternative carbohydrates does not alter response kinetics, but reduces expression of some glycan utilization genes as well as the cell's sensitivity to glycans that are present in lower concentration. Growth in a mixture containing 12 different glycans revealed that Bt preferentially uses some before others. This metabolic hierarchy is not changed by prior exposure to lower priority glycans because re-introducing high priority substrates late in culture re-initiates repression of genes involved in degrading those with lower priority. At least some carbohydrate prioritization effects occur at the level of monosaccharide recognition. Our results provide insight into how a bacterial glycan generalist modifies its responses in dynamic glycan environments and provide essential knowledge to interpret related metabolic behaviour in vivo.
© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.