Biased partitioning of the multidrug efflux pump AcrAB-TolC underlies long-lived phenotypic heterogeneity

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The molecular mechanisms underlying phenotypic variation in isogenic bacterial populations remain poorly understood. We report that AcrAB-TolC, the main multidrug efflux pump of Escherichia coli, exhibits a strong partitioning bias for old cell poles by a segregation mechanism that is mediated by ternary AcrAB-TolC complex formation. Mother cells inheriting old poles are phenotypically distinct and display increased drug efflux activity relative to daughters. Consequently, we find systematic and long-lived growth differences between mother and daughter cells in the presence of subinhibitory drug concentrations. A simple model for biased partitioning predicts a population structure of long-lived and highly heterogeneous phenotypes. This straightforward mechanism of generating sustained growth rate differences at subinhibitory antibiotic concentrations has implications for understanding the emergence of multidrug resistance in bacteria.

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