When bacteria grow in a medium with two sugars, they first use the preferred sugar and only then start metabolizing the second one. After the first exponential growth phase, a short lag phase of nongrowth is observed, a period called the diauxie lag phase. It is commonly seen as a phase in which the bacteria prepare themselves to use the second sugar. Here we reveal that, in contrast to the established concept of metabolic adaptation in the lag phase, two stable cell types with alternative metabolic strategies emerge and coexist in a culture of the bacterium Lactococcus lactis. Only one of them continues to grow. The fraction of each metabolic phenotype depends on the level of catabolite repression and the metabolic state-dependent induction of stringent response, as well as on epigenetic cues. Furthermore, we show that the production of alternative metabolic phenotypes potentially entails a bet-hedging strategy. This study sheds new light on phenotypic heterogeneity during various lag phases occurring in microbiology and biotechnology and adjusts the generally accepted explanation of enzymatic adaptation proposed by Monod and shared by scientists for more than half a century.
Keywords: Gram-positive bacteria; metabolic fitness; phenotypic heterogeneity.