Main content area

Direct observation of single stationary-phase bacteria reveals a surprisingly long period of constant protein production activity

Gefen, Orit, Fridman, Ofer, Ronin, Irine, Balaban, Nathalie Q.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2014 v.111 no.1 pp. 556-561
Escherichia coli, amino acids, bacteria, bacterial proteins, carbon, fluorescent proteins, monitoring, physiological state, protein synthesis, regrowth
Exponentially growing bacteria are rarely found in the wild, as microorganisms tend to spend most of their lifetime at stationary phase. Despite this general prevalence of stationary-phase bacteria, they are as yet poorly characterized. Our goal was to quantitatively study this phase by direct observation of single bacteria as they enter into stationary phase and by monitoring their activity over several days during growth arrest. For this purpose, we devised an experimental procedure for starving single Escherichia coli bacteria in microfluidic devices and measured their activity by monitoring the production rate of fluorescent proteins. When amino acids were the sole carbon source, the production rate decreased by an order of magnitude upon entry into stationary phase. We found that, even while growth-arrested, bacteria continued to produce proteins at a surprisingly constant rate over several days. Our identification of this newly observed period of constant activity in nongrowing cells, designated as constant activity stationary phase, makes possible the conduction of assays that require constant protein expression over time, and are therefore difficult to perform under exponential growth conditions. Moreover, we show that exogenous protein expression bears no fitness cost on the regrowth of the population when starvation ends. Further characterization of constant activity stationary phase—a phase where nongrowing bacteria can be quantitatively studied over several days in a reproducible manner—should contribute to a better understanding of this ubiquitous but overlooked physiological state of bacteria in nature.