Adaptive tuning of cell sensory diversity without changes in gene expression
In the face of uncertainty, cell populations tend to diversify to enhance survival and growth. Previous studies established that cells can optimize such bet hedging upon environmental change by modulating gene expression to adapt both the average and diversity of phenotypes. Here, we demonstrate that cells can tune phenotypic di-versity also using posttranslational modifications. In the chemotaxis network of Escherichia coli, we find, for both major chemoreceptors Tar and Tsr, that cell-to-cell variation in response sensitivity is dynamically modulated depending on the presence or absence of their cognate chemoeffector ligands in the environment. Combining experiments with mathematical modeling, we show that this diversity tuning requires only the environment-dependent covalent modification of chemoreceptors and a standing cell-to-cell variation in their allosteric cou-pling. Thus, when environmental cues are unavailable, phenotypic diversity enhances the population’s readiness for many signals. However, once a signal is perceived, the population focuses on tracking that signal.