Relative Rates of Surface and Volume Synthesis Set Bacterial Cell Size

Cell. 2016 Jun 2;165(6):1479-1492. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2016.05.045.


Many studies have focused on the mechanisms underlying length and width determination in rod-shaped bacteria. Here, we focus instead on cell surface area to volume ratio (SA/V) and demonstrate that SA/V homeostasis underlies size determination. We propose a model whereby the instantaneous rates of surface and volume synthesis both scale with volume. This model predicts that these relative rates dictate SA/V and that cells approach a new steady-state SA/V exponentially, with a decay constant equal to the volume growth rate. To test this, we exposed diverse bacterial species to sublethal concentrations of a cell wall biosynthesis inhibitor and observed dose-dependent decreases in SA/V. Furthermore, this decrease was exponential and had the expected decay constant. The model also quantitatively describes SA/V alterations induced by other chemical, nutritional, and genetic perturbations. We additionally present evidence for a surface material accumulation threshold underlying division, sensitizing cell length to changes in SA/V requirements.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology
  • Bacteria / growth & development*
  • Bacteria / ultrastructure*
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Caulobacter crescentus / drug effects
  • Caulobacter crescentus / growth & development
  • Caulobacter crescentus / ultrastructure
  • Escherichia coli / growth & development
  • Escherichia coli / ultrastructure
  • Fosfomycin / pharmacology
  • Listeria monocytogenes / growth & development
  • Listeria monocytogenes / ultrastructure
  • Models, Biological
  • Peptidoglycan
  • Surface Properties


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Peptidoglycan
  • Fosfomycin