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PLoS Genet. 2008 Oct 3;4(10):e1000208. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1000208.

Mutability and importance of a hypermutable cell subpopulation that produces stress-induced mutants in Escherichia coli.

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Department of Molecular and Human Genetics, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, United States of America.


In bacterial, yeast, and human cells, stress-induced mutation mechanisms are induced in growth-limiting environments and produce non-adaptive and adaptive mutations. These mechanisms may accelerate evolution specifically when cells are maladapted to their environments, i.e., when they are are stressed. One mechanism of stress-induced mutagenesis in Escherichia coli occurs by error-prone DNA double-strand break (DSB) repair. This mechanism was linked previously to a differentiated subpopulation of cells with a transiently elevated mutation rate, a hypermutable cell subpopulation (HMS). The HMS could be important, producing essentially all stress-induced mutants. Alternatively, the HMS was proposed to produce only a minority of stress-induced mutants, i.e., it was proposed to be peripheral. We characterize three aspects of the HMS. First, using improved mutation-detection methods, we estimate the number of mutations per genome of HMS-derived cells and find that it is compatible with fitness after the HMS state. This implies that these mutants are not necessarily an evolutionary dead end, and could contribute to adaptive evolution. Second, we show that stress-induced Lac(+) mutants, with and without evidence of descent from the HMS, have similar Lac(+) mutation sequences. This provides evidence that HMS-descended and most stress-induced mutants form via a common mechanism. Third, mutation-stimulating DSBs introduced via I-SceI endonuclease in vivo do not promote Lac(+) mutation independently of the HMS. This and the previous finding support the hypothesis that the HMS underlies most stress-induced mutants, not just a minority of them, i.e., it is important. We consider a model in which HMS differentiation is controlled by stress responses. Differentiation of an HMS potentially limits the risks of mutagenesis in cell clones.

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