Winner-takes-all resource competition redirects cascading cell fate transitions

Nat Commun. 2021 Feb 8;12(1):853. doi: 10.1038/s41467-021-21125-3.


Failure of modularity remains a significant challenge for assembling synthetic gene circuits with tested modules as they often do not function as expected. Competition over shared limited gene expression resources is a crucial underlying reason. It was reported that resource competition makes two seemingly separate genes connect in a graded linear manner. Here we unveil nonlinear resource competition within synthetic gene circuits. We first build a synthetic cascading bistable switches (Syn-CBS) circuit in a single strain with two coupled self-activation modules to achieve two successive cell fate transitions. Interestingly, we find that the in vivo transition path was redirected as the activation of one switch always prevails against the other, contrary to the theoretically expected coactivation. This qualitatively different type of resource competition between the two modules follows a 'winner-takes-all' rule, where the winner is determined by the relative connection strength between the modules. To decouple the resource competition, we construct a two-strain circuit, which achieves successive activation and stable coactivation of the two switches. These results illustrate that a highly nonlinear hidden interaction between the circuit modules due to resource competition may cause counterintuitive consequences on circuit functions, which can be controlled with a division of labor strategy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cell Lineage*
  • Microbial Consortia
  • Models, Biological