Control of nongenetic heterogeneity in growth rate and stress tolerance of <i>Saccharomyces cerevisiae</i> by cyclic AMP-regulated transcription factors

by Shuang Li, Daniella M. Giardina, Mark L. Siegal

Genetically identical cells exhibit extensive phenotypic variation even under constant and benign conditions. This so-called nongenetic heterogeneity has important clinical implications: within tumors and microbial infections, cells show nongenetic heterogeneity in growth rate and in susceptibility to drugs or stress. The budding yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, shows a similar form of nongenetic heterogeneity in which growth rate correlates positively with susceptibility to acute heat stress at the single-cell level. Using genetic and chemical perturbations, combined with high-throughput single-cell assays of yeast growth and gene expression, we show here that heterogeneity in intracellular cyclic AMP (cAMP) levels acting through the conserved Ras/cAMP/protein kinase A (PKA) pathway and its target transcription factors, Msn2 and Msn4, underlies this nongenetic heterogeneity. Lower levels of cAMP correspond to slower growth, as shown by direct comparison of cAMP concentration in subpopulations enriched for slower vs. faster growing cells. Concordantly, an endogenous reporter of this pathway’s activity correlates with growth in individual cells. The paralogs Msn2 and Msn4 differ in their roles in nongenetic heterogeneity in a way that demonstrates slow growth and stress tolerance are not inevitably linked. Heterogeneity in growth rate requires each, whereas only Msn2 is required for heterogeneity in expression of Tsl1, a subunit of trehalose synthase that contributes to acute-stress tolerance. Perturbing nongenetic heterogeneity by mutating genes in this pathway, or by culturing wild-type cells with the cell-permeable cAMP analog 8-bromo-cAMP or the PKA inhibitor H89, significantly impacts survival of acute heat stress. Perturbations that increase intracellular cAMP levels reduce the slower-growing subpopulation and increase susceptibility to acute heat stress, whereas PKA inhibition slows growth and decreases susceptibility to acute heat stress. Loss of Msn2 reduces, but does not completely eliminate, the correlation in individual cells between growth rate and acute-stress survival, suggesting a major role for the Msn2 pathway in nongenetic heterogeneity but also a residual benefit of slow growth. Our results shed light on the genetic control of nongenetic heterogeneity and suggest a possible means of defeating bet-hedging pathogens or tumor cells by making them more uniformly susceptible to treatment.

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