Michelle E Fontes

California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, United States

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Publications (4)121.09 Total impact

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    ABSTRACT: 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 timescales much longer than a cell cycle.
    PLoS Biology 01/2012; 10(1):e1001252. · 12.69 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: Gene regulatory circuits can use dynamic, and even stochastic, strategies to respond to environmental conditions. We examined activation of the general stress response mediated by the alternative sigma factor, σ(B), in individual Bacillus subtilis cells. We observed that energy stress activates σ(B) in discrete stochastic pulses, with increasing levels of stress leading to higher pulse frequencies. By perturbing and rewiring the endogenous system, we found that this behavior results from three key features of the σ(B) circuit: an ultrasensitive phosphorylation switch; stochasticity ("noise"), which activates that switch; and a mixed (positive and negative) transcriptional feedback, which can both amplify a pulse and switch it off. Together, these results show how prokaryotes encode signals using stochastic pulse frequency modulation through a compact regulatory architecture.
    Science 10/2011; 334(6054):366-9. · 31.20 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: The Notch-Delta signalling pathway allows communication between neighbouring cells during development. It has a critical role in the formation of 'fine-grained' patterns, generating distinct cell fates among groups of initially equivalent neighbouring cells and sharply delineating neighbouring regions in developing tissues. The Delta ligand has been shown to have two activities: it transactivates Notch in neighbouring cells and cis-inhibits Notch in its own cell. However, it remains unclear how Notch integrates these two activities and how the resulting system facilitates pattern formation. Here we report the development of a quantitative time-lapse microscopy platform for analysing Notch-Delta signalling dynamics in individual mammalian cells, with the aim of addressing these issues. By controlling both cis- and trans-Delta concentrations, and monitoring the dynamics of a Notch reporter, we measured the combined cis-trans input-output relationship in the Notch-Delta system. The data revealed a striking difference between the responses of Notch to trans- and cis-Delta: whereas the response to trans-Delta is graded, the response to cis-Delta is sharp and occurs at a fixed threshold, independent of trans-Delta. We developed a simple mathematical model that shows how these behaviours emerge from the mutual inactivation of Notch and Delta proteins in the same cell. This interaction generates an ultrasensitive switch between mutually exclusive sending (high Delta/low Notch) and receiving (high Notch/low Delta) signalling states. At the multicellular level, this switch can amplify small differences between neighbouring cells even without transcription-mediated feedback. This Notch-Delta signalling switch facilitates the formation of sharp boundaries and lateral-inhibition patterns in models of development, and provides insight into previously unexplained mutant behaviours.
    Nature 04/2010; 465(7294):86-90. · 38.60 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: Development normally occurs similarly in all individuals within an isogenic population, but mutations often affect the fates of individual organisms differently. This phenomenon, known as partial penetrance, has been observed in diverse developmental systems. However, it remains unclear how the underlying genetic network specifies the set of possible alternative fates and how the relative frequencies of these fates evolve. Here we identify a stochastic cell fate determination process that operates in Bacillus subtilis sporulation mutants and show how it allows genetic control of the penetrance of multiple fates. Mutations in an intercompartmental signalling process generate a set of discrete alternative fates not observed in wild-type cells, including rare formation of two viable 'twin' spores, rather than one within a single cell. By genetically modulating chromosome replication and septation, we can systematically tune the penetrance of each mutant fate. Furthermore, signalling and replication perturbations synergize to significantly increase the penetrance of twin sporulation. These results suggest a potential pathway for developmental evolution between monosporulation and twin sporulation through states of intermediate twin penetrance. Furthermore, time-lapse microscopy of twin sporulation in wild-type Clostridium oceanicum shows a strong resemblance to twin sporulation in these B. subtilis mutants. Together the results suggest that noise can facilitate developmental evolution by enabling the initial expression of discrete morphological traits at low penetrance, and allowing their stabilization by gradual adjustment of genetic parameters.
    Nature 08/2009; 460(7254):510-4. · 38.60 Impact Factor