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J R Soc Interface. 2015 Jul 6;12(108):20150130. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2015.0130.

Unrelated toxin-antitoxin systems cooperate to induce persistence.

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Department of Biomedical Engineering and Microbiology Graduate Group, University of California, Davis, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616, USA.
Department of Biomedical Engineering and Microbiology Graduate Group, University of California, Davis, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616, USA


Persisters are drug-tolerant bacteria that account for the majority of bacterial infections. They are not mutants, rather, they are slow-growing cells in an otherwise normally growing population. It is known that the frequency of persisters in a population is correlated with the number of toxin-antitoxin systems in the organism. Our previous work provided a mechanistic link between the two by showing how multiple toxin-antitoxin systems, which are present in nearly all bacteria, can cooperate to induce bistable toxin concentrations that result in a heterogeneous population of slow- and fast-growing cells. As such, the slow-growing persisters are a bet-hedging subpopulation maintained under normal conditions. For technical reasons, the model assumed that the kinetic parameters of the various toxin-antitoxin systems in the cell are identical, but experimental data indicate that they differ, sometimes dramatically. Thus, a critical question remains: whether toxin-antitoxin systems from the diverse families, often found together in a cell, with significantly different kinetics, can cooperate in a similar manner. Here, we characterize the interaction of toxin-antitoxin systems from many families that are unrelated and kinetically diverse, and identify the essential determinant for their cooperation. The generic architecture of toxin-antitoxin systems provides the potential for bistability, and our results show that even when they do not exhibit bistability alone, unrelated systems can be coupled by the growth rate to create a strongly bistable, hysteretic switch between normal (fast-growing) and persistent (slow-growing) states. Different combinations of kinetic parameters can produce similar toxic switching thresholds, and the proximity of the thresholds is the primary determinant of bistability. Stochastic fluctuations can spontaneously switch all of the toxin-antitoxin systems in a cell at once. The spontaneous switch creates a heterogeneous population of growing and non-growing cells, typical of persisters, that exist under normal conditions, rather than only as an induced response. The frequency of persisters in the population can be tuned for a particular environmental niche by mixing and matching unrelated systems via mutation, horizontal gene transfer and selection.


bistability; environment; growth rate; heterogeneous population; multidrug tolerance; stochastic noise

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