Bistable flagellar and virulence gene expression generates specialized Salmonella subpopulations with distinct functions. Repressing flagellar genes allows Salmonella to evade caspase-1 mediated host defenses and enhances systemic colonization. By definition, bistability arises when intermediate states of gene expression are rendered unstable by the underlying genetic circuitry. We demonstrate sustained bistable fliC expression in virulent Salmonella 14028 and document dynamic control of the distribution, or single-cell census, of flagellar gene expression by the mutually repressing repressors YdiV and FliZ. YdiV partitions cells into the fliC-OFF subpopulation, while FliZ partitions cells into the fliC-HIGH subpopulation at late time points during growth. Bistability of ΔfliZ populations and ydiV-independent FliZ control of flagellar gene expression provide evidence that the YdiV-FliZ mutually repressing repressor circuit is not required for bistability. Repression and activation by YdiV and FliZ (respectively) can shape the census of fliC expression independently, and bistability collapses into a predominantly intermediate population in the absence of both regulators. Metered expression of YdiV and FliZ reveals variable sensitivity to these regulators and defines conditions where expression of FliZ enhances fliC expression and where FliZ does not alter the fliC census. Thus, this evolved genetic circuitry coordinates multiple layers of regulatory heterogeneity into a binary response.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.