Bistable switches are widely used in synthetic biology to trigger cellular functions in response to environmental signals. All bistable switches developed so far, however, control the expression of target genes without access to other layers of the cellular machinery. Here, we propose a bistable switch to control the rate at which cells take up a metabolite from the environment. An uptake switch provides a new interface to command metabolic activity from the extracellular space and has great potential as a building block in more complex circuits that coordinate pathway activity across cell cultures, allocate metabolic tasks among different strains or require cell-to-cell communication with metabolic signals. Inspired by uptake systems found in nature, we propose to couple metabolite import and utilization with a genetic circuit under feedback regulation. Using mathematical models and analysis, we determined the circuit architectures that produce bistability and obtained their design space for bistability in terms of experimentally tuneable parameters. We found an activation-repression architecture to be the most robust switch because it displays bistability for the largest range of design parameters and requires little fine-tuning of the promoters' response curves. Our analytic results are based on on-off approximations of promoter activity and are in excellent qualitative agreement with simulations of more realistic models. With further analysis and simulation, we established conditions to maximize the parameter design space and to produce bimodal phenotypes via hysteresis and cell-to-cell variability. Our results highlight how mathematical analysis can drive the discovery of new circuits for synthetic biology, as the proposed circuit has all the hallmarks of a toggle switch and stands as a promising design to control metabolic phenotypes across cell cultures.
Keywords: bistability; cellular uptake; dynamic metabolic engineering; genetic circuits; piecewise affine models; synthetic biology.
© 2015 The Author(s).