Single-cell characterization of metabolic switching in the sugar phosphotransferase system ofEscherichia coli

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The utilization of several sugars inEscherichia coliis regulated by the Phosphotransferase System (PTS), in which diverse sugar utilization modules compete for phosphoryl flux from the general PTS proteins. Existing theoretical work predicts a winner-take-all outcome when this flux limits carbon uptake. To date, no experimental work has interrogated competing PTS uptake modules with single-cell resolution. Using time-lapse microscopy in perfused microchannels, we analyzed the competition betweenN-acetyl-glucosamine and sorbitol, as representative PTS sugars, by measuring both the expression of their utilization systems and the concomitant impact of sugar utilization on growth rates. We find two distinct regimes: hierarchical usage of the carbohydrates, and co-expression of the genes for both systems. Simulations of a mathematical model incorporating asymmetric sugar quality reproduce our metabolic phase diagram, indicating that under conditions of nonlimiting phosphate flux, co-expression is due to uncoupling of both sugar utilization systems. Our model reproduces hierarchical winner-take-all behaviour and stochastic co-expression, and predicts the switching between both strategies as a function of available phosphate flux. Hence, experiments and theory both suggest that PTS sugar utilization involves not only switching between the sugars utilized but also switching of utilization strategies to accommodate prevailing environmental conditions.

Depending on the external concentration of sugar, Escherichia coli shows various utilization strategies: In the presence of two PTS sugars hierarchical expression of a dominant system as well as co-expression of both systems is observed in experiment and can be modeled by flux-limited competition.

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