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J Bacteriol. 1994 Apr;176(7):1977-84.

Gene expression in single cells of Bacillus subtilis: evidence that a threshold mechanism controls the initiation of sporulation.

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Department of Chemical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge 02139.


Early during endospore formation in the bacterium Bacillus subtilis, two distinct cell types are formed. The initiation of this developmental pathway requires several physiological conditions (e.g., nutrient deprivation) and is controlled by the Spo0A transcription factor. We have found that in a culture of sporulating cells, there are two subpopulations, one that has initiated the developmental program and activated the expression of early developmental genes and one in which early developmental gene expression remains uninduced. We measured the expression of developmental (spo) genes in single cells of B. subtilis by using spo-lacZ fusions. Cells containing a spo-lacZ fusion were stained with a dye that fluoresces upon hydrolysis by beta-galactosidase, and the fluorescence in individual cells was measured with a flow cytometer. For Spo+ cells, we found that the proportion of the population expressing early developmental genes correlates well with the fraction of the population that eventually produces spores. In addition, mutations that cause a decrease in the amount of activated (phosphorylated) Spo0A transcription factor cause a decrease in the size of the subpopulation expressing early developmental genes that are directly activated by Spo0A approximately P. Again, the size of the subpopulation correlates well with the fraction of cells that produce spores. These results indicate that a threshold level of activated Spo0A (Spo0A approximately P) or of a component of the phosphorylation pathway must accumulate to induce sporulation gene expression and that most of the cells that are able to induce the expression of early genes that are directly activated by Spo0A approximately P go on to produce mature spores.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS).

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