Use of a microfluidic platform to uncover basic features of energy and environmental stress responses in individual cells of Bacillus subtilis

PLoS Genet. 2017 Jul 20;13(7):e1006901. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1006901. eCollection 2017 Jul.


Bacteria use a variety of stress-sensing systems to sense and respond to diverse stressors and to ensure their survival under adverse conditions. The gram-positive bacterium Bacillus subtilis responds to energy stress (ATP depletion) and to environmental stressors using two distinct stress-sensing pathways that converge on the alternative sigma factor σB to provoke a general stress response. Past efforts to study the σB stress response in bulk culture and on agarose pads were unable to visualize the responses of individual cells under tightly controlled conditions for extended periods of time. Here we use a microfluidics-based strategy to discern the basic features of σB activation in single cells in response to energy and environmental stress, both immediately upon stressor exposure and for tens of generations thereafter. Upon energy stress at various levels of stressor, cells exhibited fast, transient, and amplitude-modulated responses but not frequency modulation as previously reported. Upon environmental stress, which is mediated by the stressosome complex, wild-type cells primarily exhibited a transient and amplitude-modulated response. However, mutant cells producing only one of the four paralogous RsbR stressosome proteins showed striking and previously unseen differences. Whereas RsbRA-only cells mimicked the wild type, RsbRC-only cells displayed a slower but sustained overall response composed of repeated activation events in single cells.

MeSH terms

  • Adenosine Triphosphate / genetics
  • Bacillus subtilis / genetics
  • Bacillus subtilis / metabolism
  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics*
  • Energy Metabolism / genetics*
  • Gene-Environment Interaction
  • Microfluidic Analytical Techniques / methods
  • Phosphoproteins / genetics*
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases / genetics*
  • Sigma Factor / genetics*
  • Single-Cell Analysis / methods
  • Stress, Physiological / genetics*


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • FliA protein, Bacteria
  • Phosphoproteins
  • RsbR protein, Bacillus subtilis
  • Sigma Factor
  • Adenosine Triphosphate
  • RsbT protein, Bacillus subtilis
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases