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OMICS. 2002;6(1):91-114.

Fifteen minutes of fim: control of type 1 pili expression in E. coli.

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, California 94720, USA.

Erratum in

  • OMICS 2002;6(2):213-4.


Pili are used by Escherichia coli to attach to and invade mammalian tissues during host infection and colonization. Expression of type 1 pili, believed to act as virulence factors in urinary tract infections, is under control of the 'firm' genetic network. This network is able to sense the environment and actuate phase variation control. It is a prime exemplar of an integrative regulatory system because of its role in mediating a complex infection process, and because it instantiates a number of regulatory motifs, including DNA inversion and stochastic variation. With the help of a mathematical model, we explore the mechanisms and architecture of the fim network. We explain (1) basic network operation, including the roles of the recombinase and global regulatory protein concentrations, their DNA binding affinities, and their switching rates in observed phase variation behavior; (2) why there are two recombinases when one would seem to suffice; (3) the source of on-to-off switching specificity of FimE; (4) the role of fimE orientational control in switch dynamics; and (5) how temperature tuning of piliation is achieved. In the process, we identify a general regulatory motif that tunes phenotype to an environmental variable, and explain a number of apparent experimental inconsistencies.

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