Excitable dynamics through toxin-induced mRNA cleavage in bacteria

Stefan Vet, Alexandra Vandervelde, Lendert Gelens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Toxin-antitoxin (TA) systems in bacteria and archaea are small genetic elements consisting of the genes coding for an intracellular toxin and an antitoxin that can neutralize this toxin. In various cases, the toxins cleave the mRNA. In this theoretical work we use deterministic and stochastic modeling to explain how toxin-induced cleavage of mRNA in TA systems can lead to excitability, allowing large transient spikes in toxin levels to be triggered. By using a simplified network where secondary complex formation and transcriptional regulation are not included, we show that a two-dimensional, deterministic model captures the origin of such toxin excitations. Moreover, it allows to increase our understanding by examining the dynamics in the phase plane. By systematically comparing the deterministic results with Gillespie simulations we demonstrate that even though the real TA system is intrinsically stochastic, toxin excitations can be accurately described deterministically. A bifurcation analysis of the system shows that the excitable behavior is due to a nearby Hopf bifurcation in the parameter space, where the system becomes oscillatory. The influence of stress is modeled by varying the degradation rate of the antitoxin and the translation rate of the toxin. We find that stress increases the frequency of toxin excitations. The inclusion of secondary complex formation and transcriptional regulation does not fundamentally change the mechanism of toxin excitations. Finally, we show that including growth rate suppression and translational inhibition can lead to longer excitations, and even cause excitations in cases when the system would otherwise be non-excitable. To conclude, the deterministic model used in this work provides a simple and intuitive explanation of toxin excitations in TA systems.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0212288
Number of pages20
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 22 Feb 2019


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