skip to main content

Title: Orthogonal control of mean and variability of endogenous genes in a human cell line

Stochastic fluctuations at the transcriptional level contribute to isogenic cell-to-cell heterogeneity in mammalian cell populations. However, we still have no clear understanding of the repercussions of this heterogeneity, given the lack of tools to independently control mean expression and variability of a gene. Here, we engineer a synthetic circuit to modulate mean expression and heterogeneity of transgenes and endogenous human genes. The circuit, a Tunable Noise Rheostat (TuNR), consists of a transcriptional cascade of two inducible transcriptional activators, where the output mean and variance can be modulated by two orthogonal small molecule inputs. In this fashion, different combinations of the inputs can achieve the same mean but with different population variability. With TuNR, we achieve low basal expression, over 1000-fold expression of a transgene product, and up to 7-fold induction of the endogenous geneNGFR. Importantly, for the same mean expression level, we are able to establish varying degrees of heterogeneity in expression within an isogenic population, thereby decoupling gene expression noise from its mean. TuNR is therefore a modular tool that can be used in mammalian cells to enable direct interrogation of the implications of cell-to-cell variability.

; ; ;
Publication Date:
Journal Name:
Nature Communications
Nature Publishing Group
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    Gene expression noise can reduce cellular fitness or facilitate processes such as alternative metabolism, antibiotic resistance, and differentiation. Unfortunately, efforts to study the impacts of noise have been hampered by a scaling relationship between noise and expression level from individual promoters. Here, we use theory to demonstrate that mean and noise can be controlled independently by expressing two copies of a gene from separate inducible promoters in the same cell. We engineer low and high noise inducible promoters to validate this result inEscherichia coli, and develop a model that predicts the experimental distributions. Finally, we use our method to reveal that the response of a promoter to a repressor is less sensitive with higher repressor noise and explain this result using a law from probability theory. Our approach can be applied to investigate the effects of noise on diverse biological pathways or program cellular heterogeneity for synthetic biology applications.

  2. Abstract

    Synthetic biology has the potential to bring forth advanced genetic devices for applications in healthcare and biotechnology. However, accurately predicting the behavior of engineered genetic devices remains difficult due to lack of modularity, wherein a device’s output does not depend only on its intended inputs but also on its context. One contributor to lack of modularity is loading of transcriptional and translational resources, which can induce coupling among otherwise independently-regulated genes. Here, we quantify the effects of resource loading in engineered mammalian genetic systems and develop an endoribonuclease-based feedforward controller that can adapt the expression level of a gene of interest to significant resource loading in mammalian cells. Near-perfect adaptation to resource loads is facilitated by high production and catalytic rates of the endoribonuclease. Our design is portable across cell lines and enables predictable tuning of controller function. Ultimately, our controller is a general-purpose device for predictable, robust, and context-independent control of gene expression.

  3. Abstract Background

    RNA sequencing is a powerful approach to quantify the genome-wide distribution of mRNA molecules in a population to gain deeper understanding of cellular functions and phenotypes. However, unlike eukaryotic cells, mRNA sequencing of bacterial samples is more challenging due to the absence of a poly-A tail that typically enables efficient capture and enrichment of mRNA from the abundant rRNA molecules in a cell. Moreover, bacterial cells frequently contain 100-fold lower quantities of RNA compared to mammalian cells, which further complicates mRNA sequencing from non-cultivable and non-model bacterial species. To overcome these limitations, we report EMBR-seq (Enrichment of mRNA by Blocked rRNA), a method that efficiently depletes 5S, 16S and 23S rRNA using blocking primers to prevent their amplification.


    EMBR-seq results in 90% of the sequenced RNA molecules from anE. coliculture deriving from mRNA. We demonstrate that this increased efficiency provides a deeper view of the transcriptome without introducing technical amplification-induced biases. Moreover, compared to recent methods that employ a large array of oligonucleotides to deplete rRNA, EMBR-seq uses a single or a few oligonucleotides per rRNA, thereby making this new technology significantly more cost-effective, especially when applied to varied bacterial species. Finally, compared to existing commercial kits for bacterialmore »rRNA depletion, we show that EMBR-seq can be used to successfully quantify the transcriptome from more than 500-fold lower starting total RNA.


    EMBR-seq provides an efficient and cost-effective approach to quantify global gene expression profiles from low input bacterial samples.

    « less
  4. Abstract

    Many pheromone sensing bacteria produce and detect more than one chemically distinct signal, or autoinducer. The pathways that detect these signals are typically noisy and interlocked through crosstalk and feedback. As a result, the sensing response of individual cells is described by statistical distributions that change under different combinations of signal inputs. Here we examine how signal crosstalk reshapes this response. We measure how combinations of two homoserine lactone (HSL) input signals alter the statistical distributions of individual cell responses in the AinS/R- and LuxI/R-controlled branches of theVibrio fischeribioluminescence pathway. We find that, while the distributions of pathway activation in individual cells vary in complex fashion with environmental conditions, these changes have a low-dimensional representation. For both the AinS/R and LuxI/R branches, the distribution of individual cell responses to mixtures of the two HSLs is effectively one-dimensional, so that a single tuning parameter can capture the full range of variability in the distributions. Combinations of crosstalking HSL signals extend the range of responses for each branch of the circuit, so that signals in combination allow population-wide distributions that are not available under a single HSL input. Dimension reduction also simplifies the problem of identifying the HSL conditions to whichmore »the pathways and their outputs are most sensitive. A comparison of the maximum sensitivity HSL conditions to actual HSL levels measured during culture growth indicates that the AinS/R and LuxI/R branches lack sensitivity to population density except during the very earliest and latest stages of growth respectively.

    « less
  5. Abstract Periodic gene expression dynamics are key to cell and organism physiology. Studies of oscillatory expression have focused on networks with intuitive regulatory negative feedback loops, leaving unknown whether other common biochemical reactions can produce oscillations. Oscillation and noise have been proposed to support mammalian progenitor cells’ capacity to restore heterogenous, multimodal expression from extreme subpopulations, but underlying networks and specific roles of noise remained elusive. We use mass-action-based models to show that regulated RNA degradation involving as few as two RNA species—applicable to nearly half of human protein-coding genes—can generate sustained oscillations without explicit feedback. Diverging oscillation periods synergize with noise to robustly restore cell populations’ bimodal expression on timescales of days. The global bifurcation organizing this divergence relies on an oscillator and bistable switch which cannot be decomposed into two structural modules. Our work reveals surprisingly rich dynamics of post-transcriptional reactions and a potentially widespread mechanism underlying development, tissue regeneration, and cancer cell heterogeneity.