Optimal Resting-Growth Strategies of Microbial Populations in Fluctuating Environments
Vilar, José M. G.
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PLoS ONE 6(4) : (2011) // e18622
Bacteria spend most of their lifetime in non-growing states which allow them to survive extended periods of stress and starvation. When environments improve, they must quickly resume growth to maximize their share of limited nutrients. Cells with higher stress resistance often survive longer stress durations at the cost of needing more time to resume growth, a strong disadvantage in competitive environments. Here we analyze the basis of optimal strategies that microorganisms can use to cope with this tradeoff. We explicitly show that the prototypical inverse relation between stress resistance and growth rate can explain much of the different types of behavior observed in stressed microbial populations. Using analytical mathematical methods, we determine the environmental parameters that decide whether cells should remain vegetative upon stress exposure, downregulate their metabolism to an intermediate optimum level, or become dormant. We find that cell-cell variability, or intercellular noise, is consistently beneficial in the presence of extreme environmental fluctuations, and that it provides an efficient population-level mechanism for adaption in a deteriorating environment. Our results reveal key novel aspects of responsive phenotype switching and its role as an adaptive strategy in changing environments.