Evolution of pH-sensitive transcription termination during adaptation to repeated long-term starvation

bioRxiv [Preprint]. 2024 Mar 1:2024.03.01.582989. doi: 10.1101/2024.03.01.582989.


Fluctuating environments that consist of regular cycles of co-occurring stress are a common challenge faced by cellular populations. For a population to thrive in constantly changing conditions, an ability to coordinate a rapid cellular response is essential. Here, we identify a mutation conferring an arginine-to-histidine (Arg to His) substitution in the transcription terminator Rho. The rho R109H mutation frequently arose in E. coli populations experimentally evolved under repeated long-term starvation conditions, during which feast and famine result in drastic environmental pH fluctuations. Metagenomic sequencing revealed that populations containing the rho mutation also possess putative loss-of-function mutations in ydcI, which encodes a recently characterized transcription factor associated with pH homeostasis. Genetic reconstructions of these mutations show that the rho allele confers a plastic alkaline-induced reduction of Rho function that, when found in tandem with a ΔydcI allele, leads to intracellular alkalinization and genetic assimilation of Rho mutant function. We further identify Arg to His substitutions at analogous sites in rho alleles from species originating from fluctuating alkaline environments. Our results suggest that Arg to His substitutions in global regulators of gene expression can serve to rapidly coordinate complex responses through pH sensing and shed light on how cellular populations across the tree of life use environmental cues to coordinate rapid responses to complex, fluctuating environments.

Keywords: adaptation; alkaline stress; changing environment; gene regulation; phenotypic plasticity.

Publication types

  • Preprint