Physiological Adaptability and Parametric Versatility in a Simple Genetic Circuit.
The intimate relationship between the environment and cellular growth rate has remained a major topic of inquiry in bacterial physiology for over a century. Now, as it becomes possible to understand how the growth rate dictates the wholesale reorganization of the intracellular molecular composition, we can interrogate the biophysical principles underlying this adaptive response. Regulation of gene expression drives this adaptation, with changes in growth rate tied to the activation or repression of genes covering enormous swaths of the genome. Here, we dissect how physiological perturbations alter the expression of a circuit which has been extensively characterized in a single physiological state. Given a complete thermodynamic model, we map changes in physiology directly to the biophysical parameters which define the expression. Controlling the growth rate via modulating the available carbon source or growth temperature, we measure the level of gene expression from a LacI-regulated promoter where the LacI copy number is directly measured in each condition, permitting parameter-free prediction of the expression level. The transcriptional output of this circuit is remarkably robust, with expression of the repressor being largely insensitive to the growth rate. The predicted gene expression quantitatively captures the observations under different carbon conditions, indicating that the biophysical parameters are indifferent to the physiology. Interestingly, temperature controls the expression level in ways that are inconsistent with the prediction, revealing temperature-dependent effects that challenge current models. This work exposes the strengths and weaknesses of thermodynamic models in fluctuating environments, posing novel challenges and utility in studying physiological adaptation.