Experimental Methods in Support of the Development of a Computational Model for Quorum Sensing in Vibrio fischeri
The quorum sensing signaling system based on intercellular exchange of N-acyl-homoserine lactones is used by many proteobacteria to regulate the transcription of essential genes in a signal density-dependent manner. It is involved in a number of processes including the development of highly organized bacterial communities, e.g., biofilms, the regulation of expression of virulence factors, production of antibiotics, and bioluminescence. The extensive genetic and biochemical data available on the quorum sensing system in Vibrio fischeri allows the development of a systems biology approach to undertake a spatial and dynamical analysis of the regulation throughout the population. The quorum sensing regulated lux genes are organized in two divergent transcriptional units: luxR and luxICDABEG. The latter contains the genes required for luminescence and the luxI gene necessary for synthesis of an N-acyl-homoserine lactone commonly called autoinducer (AI). The luxR gene codes for a transcriptional regulatory protein that activates the transcription of both operons at a threshold concentration of AI. The positive feedback loop induces a rapid increase of transcription level of the lux genes when a critical population density is reached (reflected by the concentration of AI in the environment). With a combination of molecular biology tools, physiological analysis, and mathematical modeling we identified critical characteristics of the system and expect to assign parameter values in order to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics. An ordinary differential equation mathematical model is used to investigate the dynamics of the system and derive parameter values. In parallel a novel microfluidic cell culture experimental set-up is used to carefully control environmental parameters as well as to achieve chemostatic conditions for high-density cell populations. An unstable variant of the green fluorescent protein was used as a reporter to follow the time response at a single cell level. Thus spatial organization and noise across the population can be analyzed. Plasmids carrying different genetic constructs were transformed in a recombinant Escherichia coli strain to specifically identify genetic and biochemical elements involved in the regulation of the lux genes under diverse conditions. Then the quantitative data extracted from batch culture and microfluidic assays were used to assign parameter values in the models. The particular question being investigated first is the nature of the regulation to increasing concentration of the signal. The hypothesis tested is that the regulation of the production of the signal by individual cells is biphasic and, therefore, quorum sensing should be robust to global and local variations in cell density.