Niels Bradshaw (l) and Rich Losick
An important question in biology is how genetically identical cells activate different sets of genes. This is particularly perplexing for cells that rely on random events to specify the genes they switch on. Normally, cells of a bacterium called Bacillus subtilis divide symmetrically to produce two identical cells that express identical sets of genes. However, individual cells can also undergo a developmental program to form a spore to help it survive periods of extreme conditions. To do this, first a B. subtilis cell divides asymmetrically by placing the site of division close to a randomly selected end of the cell. This creates a smaller cell that becomes the spore and a larger cell that nurtures the developing spore. Each cell must turn on different genes to play its role in spore development, but how asymmetry in the position of cell division leads to these differences in gene expression has been a longstanding mystery.
Bradshaw and Losick studied a regulatory protein, a protein phosphatase called SpoIIE, which is responsible for switching on genes in the small cell. SpoIIE is made before cells divide asymmetrically, but only accumulates in the small cell. The experiments revealed that an enzyme broke down the SpoIIE protein if it wasn’t in the small cell. This prevented SpoIIE from incorrectly switching on genes before division was completed or in the large cell.
Protection of SpoIIE from being broken down in the small cells was then shown to be linked to the placement of cell division; SpoIIE first accumulates at the asymmetrically positioned cell division machinery and then is transferred to a secondary binding site at the nearby pole of the cell. Capture of SpoIIE at the cell pole was coupled to its stabilization as SpoIIE molecules interacted with one another to form large complexes.
Together these findings provide a simple mechanism to link the asymmetric position of cell division to differences in gene expression. Future studies will focus on understanding how SpoIIE is captured at the end of the cell and how this prevents SpoIIE from being degraded.