Symmetry and scale orient Min protein patterns in shaped bacterial sculptures

Nat Nanotechnol. 2015 Aug;10(8):719-26. doi: 10.1038/nnano.2015.126. Epub 2015 Jun 22.


The boundary of a cell defines the shape and scale of its subcellular organization. However, the effects of the cell's spatial boundaries as well as the geometry sensing and scale adaptation of intracellular molecular networks remain largely unexplored. Here, we show that living bacterial cells can be 'sculpted' into defined shapes, such as squares and rectangles, which are used to explore the spatial adaptation of Min proteins that oscillate pole-to-pole in rod-shaped Escherichia coli to assist cell division. In a wide geometric parameter space, ranging from 2 × 1 × 1 to 11 × 6 × 1 μm(3), Min proteins exhibit versatile oscillation patterns, sustaining rotational, longitudinal, diagonal, stripe and even transversal modes. These patterns are found to directly capture the symmetry and scale of the cell boundary, and the Min concentration gradients scale with the cell size within a characteristic length range of 3-6 μm. Numerical simulations reveal that local microscopic Turing kinetics of Min proteins can yield global symmetry selection, gradient scaling and an adaptive range, when and only when facilitated by the three-dimensional confinement of the cell boundary. These findings cannot be explained by previous geometry-sensing models based on the longest distance, membrane area or curvature, and reveal that spatial boundaries can facilitate simple molecular interactions to result in far more versatile functions than previously understood.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Cycle Proteins / chemistry*
  • Cell Cycle Proteins / metabolism*
  • Cell Shape / physiology*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Escherichia coli / chemistry
  • Escherichia coli / cytology*
  • Escherichia coli / physiology
  • Escherichia coli / ultrastructure*
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / chemistry*
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological*


  • Cell Cycle Proteins
  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • MinE protein, E coli