A plasmid-based Escherichia coli gene expression system with cell-to-cell variation below the extrinsic noise limit

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Abstract

Experiments in synthetic biology and microbiology can benefit from protein expression systems with low cell-to-cell variability (noise) and expression levels precisely tunable across a useful dynamic range. Despite advances in understanding the molecular biology of microbial gene regulation, many experiments employ protein-expression systems exhibiting high noise and nearly all-or-none responses to induction. I present an expression system that incorporates elements known to reduce gene expression noise: negative autoregulation and bicistronic transcription. I show by stochastic simulation that while negative autoregulation can produce a more gradual response to induction, bicistronic expression of a repressor and gene of interest can be necessary to reduce noise below the extrinsic limit. I synthesized a plasmid-based system incorporating these principles and studied its properties in Escherichia coli cells, using flow cytometry and fluorescence microscopy to characterize induction dose-response, induction/repression kinetics and gene expression noise. By varying ribosome binding site strengths, expression levels from 55–10,740 molecules/cell were achieved with noise below the extrinsic limit. Individual strains are inducible across a dynamic range greater than 20-fold. Experimental comparison of different regulatory networks confirmed that bicistronic autoregulation reduces noise, and revealed unexpectedly high noise for a conventional expression system with a constitutively expressed transcriptional repressor. I suggest a hybrid, low-noise expression system to increase the dynamic range.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0187259
JournalPLoS ONE
Volume12
Issue number10
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2017

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