Unlimited multistability and Boolean logic in microbial signalling

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The ability to map environmental signals onto distinct internal physiological states or programmes is critical for single-celled microbes. A crucial systems dynamics feature underpinning such ability is multistability. While unlimited multistability is known to arise from multi-site phosphorylation seen in the signalling networks of eukaryotic cells, a similarly universal mechanism has not been identified in microbial signalling systems. These systems are generally known as two-component systems comprising histidine kinase (HK) receptors and response regulator proteins engaging in phosphotransfer reactions. We develop a mathematical framework for analysing microbial systems with multi-domain HK receptors known as hybrid and unorthodox HKs. We show that these systems embed a simple core network that exhibits multistability, thereby unveiling a novel biochemical mechanism for multistability. We further prove that sharing of downstream components allows a system with n multi-domain hybrid HKs to attain 3n steady states. We find that such systems, when sensing distinct signals, can readily implement Boolean logic functions on these signals. Using two experimentally studied examples of two-component systems implementing hybrid HKs, we show that bistability and implementation of logic functions are possible under biologically feasible reaction rates. Furthermore, we show that all sequenced microbial genomes contain significant numbers of hybrid and unorthodox HKs, and some genomes have a larger fraction of these proteins compared with regular HKs. Microbial cells are thus theoretically unbounded in mapping distinct environmental signals onto distinct physiological states and perform complex computations on them. These findings facilitate the understanding of natural two-component systems and allow their engineering through synthetic biology.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20150234.
JournalJournal of the Royal Society. Interface
Issue number108
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jul 2015

ID: 140432772