Temporal order and precision of complex stress responses in individual bacteria

Mol Syst Biol. 2019 Feb 14;15(2):e8470. doi: 10.15252/msb.20188470.


Sudden stress often triggers diverse, temporally structured gene expression responses in microbes, but it is largely unknown how variable in time such responses are and if genes respond in the same temporal order in every single cell. Here, we quantified timing variability of individual promoters responding to sublethal antibiotic stress using fluorescent reporters, microfluidics, and time-lapse microscopy. We identified lower and upper bounds that put definite constraints on timing variability, which varies strongly among promoters and conditions. Timing variability can be interpreted using results from statistical kinetics, which enable us to estimate the number of rate-limiting molecular steps underlying different responses. We found that just a few critical steps control some responses while others rely on dozens of steps. To probe connections between different stress responses, we then tracked the temporal order and response time correlations of promoter pairs in individual cells. Our results support that, when bacteria are exposed to the antibiotic nitrofurantoin, the ensuing oxidative stress and SOS responses are part of the same causal chain of molecular events. In contrast, under trimethoprim, the acid stress response and the SOS response are part of different chains of events running in parallel. Our approach reveals fundamental constraints on gene expression timing and provides new insights into the molecular events that underlie the timing of stress responses.

Keywords: antibiotics; bacterial stress response; gene expression timing; microfluidics; single‐cell measurements.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Escherichia coli / genetics*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial / drug effects
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial / genetics
  • Microfluidics / methods
  • Oxidative Stress / drug effects
  • Oxidative Stress / genetics*
  • SOS Response, Genetics / genetics*
  • Single-Cell Analysis / methods


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents