Regulatory activity revealed by dynamic correlations in gene expression noise

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Mary J Dunlop, Robert Sidney Cox, Joseph H Levine, Richard M Murray, Michael B Elowitz
Nature Genetics, 40:1493-1498

Gene regulatory interactions are context dependent, active in some cellular states but not in others. Stochastic fluctuations, or 'noise', in gene expression propagate through active, but not inactive, regulatory links. Thus, correlations in gene expression noise could provide a noninvasive means to probe the activity states of regulatory links. However, global, 'extrinsic', noise sources generate correlations even without direct regulatory links. Here we show that single-cell time-lapse microscopy, by revealing time lags due to regulation, can discriminate between active regulatory connections and extrinsic noise. We demonstrate this principle mathematically, using stochastic modeling, and experimentally, using simple synthetic gene circuits. We then use this approach to analyze dynamic noise correlations in the galactose metabolism genes of Escherichia coli. We find that the CRP-GalS-GalE feed-forward loop is inactive in standard conditions but can become active in a GalR mutant. These results show how noise can help analyze the context dependence of regulatory interactions in endogenous gene circuits.