Temporal anatomy of an epigenetic switch in cell programming: the white-opaque transition of C. albicans

Authors

  • Matthew B. Lohse,

    1. Departments of Biochemistry and Biophysics and
    2. Microbiology and Immunology, University of California San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, USA.
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  • Alexander D. Johnson

    Corresponding author
    1. Departments of Biochemistry and Biophysics and
    2. Microbiology and Immunology, University of California San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, USA.
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E-mail ajohnson@cgl.ucsf.edu; Tel. (+1) 415 476 8783; Fax (+1) 415 502 4315.

Summary

The human pathogen Candida albicans undergoes a well-defined switch between two distinct cell types, named ‘white’ and ‘opaque’. White and opaque cells differ in metabolic preferences, mating behaviours, cellular morphologies and host interactions. Each cell type is stable through many generations; switching between them is rare, stochastic and occurs without any known changes in the primary sequence of the genome; thus the switch is epigenetic. The white-opaque switch is regulated by a transcriptional circuit, composed of four regulators arranged in a series of interlocking feedback loops. To understand how switching occurs, we investigated the order of regulatory changes that occur during the switch from the opaque to the white cell type. Surprisingly, changes in key transcriptional regulators occur gradually, extending over several cell divisions with little cell-to-cell variation. Additional experiments, including perturbations to regulator concentrations, refine the signature of the commitment point. Transcriptome analysis reveals that opaque cells begin to globally resemble white cells well before they irreversibly commit to switching. We propose that these characteristics of the switching process permit C. albicans to ‘test the waters’ before making an all-or-none decision.

Ancillary