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Mol Microbiol. 2005 May;56(3):604-14.

Stripping Bacillus: ComK auto-stimulation is responsible for the bistable response in competence development.

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Groningen Biomolecular Sciences and Biotechnology Institute, Department of Genetics, University of Groningen, Kerklaan 30, 9751 NN Haren, the Netherlands.


In Bacillus subtilis competence for genetic transformation develops only in a subpopulation of cells in an isogenic culture. The molecular mechanisms underlying this phenotypic heterogeneity are unknown. In this study, we stepwise simplify the signal transduction cascade leading to competence, yielding a strain devoid of all regulatory inputs for this process that have been identified so far. We demonstrate that auto-stimulation of ComK, the master regulator for competence development, is essential and in itself can be sufficient to generate a bistable expression pattern. We argue that transcriptional regulation determines the threshold of ComK to initiate the auto-stimulatory response, and that the basal level of ComK (in a wild-type strain governed by MecA-mediated proteolytic control) determines the fraction of cells that reach this threshold, and thus develop competence.

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