Published on Tue May 25 2021

Cellular heterogeneity in DNA alkylation repair as a trade-off between cell survival and genetic plasticity

Vincent, M. S., Uphoff, S.

DNA repair mechanisms fulfil a dual role, as they are essential for cell survival and genome maintenance. We studied how cells regulate the interplay between DNA repair and mutation. We focused on the Escherichia coli adaptive response.

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Abstract

DNA repair mechanisms fulfil a dual role, as they are essential for cell survival and genome maintenance. Here, we studied how cells regulate the interplay between DNA repair and mutation. We focused on the Escherichia coli adaptive response that increases resistance to DNA alkylation damage. Combination of single-molecule imaging and microfluidic-based single-cell microscopy showed that noise in the gene activation timing of the master regulator Ada is accurately propagated to generate a distinct subpopulation of cells in which all proteins of the adaptive response are absent. Although lack of these proteins causes extreme sensitivity to alkylation stress, cellular heterogeneity in DNA alkylation repair provides a functional benefit by increasing the evolvability of the whole population. We demonstrated this by monitoring the dynamics of nascent mutations during alkylation stress as well as the frequency of fixed mutations that are generated by the distinct subpopulations of the adaptive response. This highlighted that evolvability is a trade-off between mutability and cell survival. Stochastic modulation of DNA repair capacity by the adaptive response solves this trade-off through the generation of a viable hypermutable subpopulation of cells that acts as a source of genetic diversity in a clonal population.