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Stochastic Pulse Regulation in Bacterial Stress Response

Science, 21 October 2011
Vol. 334, Issue 6054, p. 366-369
DOI: 10.1126/science.1208144

Stochastic Pulse Regulation in Bacterial Stress Response

  1. James C. W. Locke*,
  2. Jonathan W. Young*,
  3. Michelle Fontes,
  4. María Jesús Hernández Jiménez,
  5. Michael B. Elowitz
  1. Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Division of Biology and Bioengineering, Broad Center, California Institute of Technology, 1200 East California Boulevard, Pasadena, CA 91125, USA.
  1. To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: melowitz{at}
  1. * These authors contributed equally to this work.


Gene regulatory circuits can use dynamic, and even stochastic, strategies to respond to environmental conditions. We examined activation of the general stress response mediated by the alternative sigma factor, σB, in individual Bacillus subtilis cells. We observed that energy stress activates σB in discrete stochastic pulses, with increasing levels of stress leading to higher pulse frequencies. By perturbing and rewiring the endogenous system, we found that this behavior results from three key features of the σB circuit: an ultrasensitive phosphorylation switch; stochasticity (“noise”), which activates that switch; and a mixed (positive and negative) transcriptional feedback, which can both amplify a pulse and switch it off. Together, these results show how prokaryotes encode signals using stochastic pulse frequency modulation through a compact regulatory architecture.

  • Received for publication 10 May 2011.
  • Accepted for publication 1 September 2011.


J. C. Locke, J. W. Young, M. Fontes, M. J. Jiménez, and M. B. Elowitz, Stochastic Pulse Regulation in Bacterial Stress Response. Science 334, 366-369 (2011).

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