The interaction between a cell and its environment shapes fundamental intracellular processes such as cellular metabolism. In most cases growth rate is treated as a proximal metric for understanding the cellular metabolic status. However, changes in growth rate might not reflect metabolic variations in individuals responding to environmental fluctuations. Here we use single-cell microfluidics-microscopy combined with transcriptomics, proteomics and mathematical modelling to quantify the accumulation of glucose within Escherichia coli cells. In contrast to the current consensus, we reveal that environmental conditions which are comparatively unfavourable for growth, where both nutrients and salinity are depleted, increase glucose accumulation rates in individual bacteria and population subsets. We find that these changes in metabolic function are underpinned by variations at the translational and posttranslational level but not at the transcriptional level and are not dictated by changes in cell size. The metabolic response-characteristics identified greatly advance our fundamental understanding of the interactions between bacteria and their environment and have important ramifications when investigating cellular processes where salinity plays an important role.
© 2022. The Author(s).