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Genetic Regulatory Circuit Dynamics: Analysis and Synthesis


Levine, Joseph H. (2012) Genetic Regulatory Circuit Dynamics: Analysis and Synthesis. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/35A7-K421.


How can cells shape and utilize dynamic gene regulation to enable complex cellular behaviors? I study this question in natural and synthetic contexts.

The first project studies how a natural genetic network can imbue cells with a sense of ‘time’. It has long been known that environmental signals induce diverse cellular differentiation programs. In certain systems, cells defer differentiation for extended time periods after the signal appears, proliferating through multiple rounds of cell division before committing to a new fate. How can cells set a deferral time much longer than the cell cycle? Here we study Bacillus subtilis cells that respond to sudden nutrient limitation with multiple rounds of growth and division before differentiating into spores. A well characterized genetic circuit controls the concentration and phosphorylation of the master regulator Spo0A, which rises to a critical concentration to initiate sporulation. However, it remains unclear how this circuit enables cells to defer sporulation for multiple cell cycles. Using quantitative time-lapse fluorescence microscopy of Spo0A dynamics in individual cells, we observed pulses of Spo0A phosphorylation at a characteristic cell cycle phase. Pulse amplitudes grew systematically and cell-autonomously over multiple cell cycles leading up to sporulation. This pulse growth required a key positive feedback loop involving the sporulation kinases, without which the deferral of sporulation became ultrasensitive to kinase expression. Thus, deferral is controlled by a pulsed positive feedback loop in which kinase expression is activated by pulses of Spo0A phosphorylation. This pulsed positive feedback architecture provides a more robust mechanism for setting deferral times than constitutive kinase expression. Finally, using mathematical modeling, we show how pulsing and time delays together enable ‘polyphasic’ positive feedback, in which different parts of a feedback loop are active at different times. Polyphasic feedback can enable more accurate tuning of long deferral times. Together, these results suggest that Bacillus subtilis uses a pulsed positive feedback loop to implement a timer that operates over time scales much longer than a cell cycle.

The second project proposes a method to rapidly generate and test complex genetic network dynamics in living cells. Existing microorganisms have evolved genetic circuitry to meet diverse challenges and maximize their survival and fitness. These challenges arise from external environmental pressures, or internal evolved constraints. Furthermore, these challenges may be either static or dynamic in nature. While existing circuits have likely evolved to be ‘good enough’ to respond to historical challenges, it remains unclear if they can be improved upon, and whether they respond well to novel situations. Synthetic biology seeks to engineer organisms with complex novel phenotypes, both to harness these novel organisms for a function and to understand their underlying biology. Dynamic gene expression strategies may be necessary to successfully generate these phenotypes. Unfortunately, generating novel dynamic gene expression patterns with conventional genetic engineering remains a challenge. Here I propose and describe progress towards a computerized feedback control setup to enable the programming and rapid testing of dynamic gene regulatory patterns in living cells. Small sets of genes will be regulated optogenetically based on programmed control laws, and past and present cellular state. This setup will enable us to explore the functions and limits of engineered dynamic gene regulation, while hopefully, in the process, providing lessons about the underlying biology.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Systems Biology; Synthetic Biology; Bacillus subtilis; Escherichia coli; sporulation; optogenetics; machine learning; gene regulation; signaling; microfluidics; feedback; control; development; microbiology; metabolism
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Engineering and Applied Science
Major Option:Computation and Neural Systems
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Elowitz, Michael B.
Group:Kavli Nanoscience Institute
Thesis Committee:
  • Winfree, Erik (chair)
  • Elowitz, Michael B.
  • Fraser, Scott E.
  • Phillips, Robert B.
Defense Date:30 May 2012
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:06052012-121432503
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:7135
Deposited By: Joseph Levine
Deposited On:03 Jul 2014 20:28
Last Modified:03 Oct 2019 23:56

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