Non-genetic variability in microbial populations: survival strategy or nuisance?

Ethan Levien, Jiseon Min, Jane Kondev, Ariel Amir

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The observation that phenotypic variability is ubiquitous in isogenic populations has led to a multitude of experimental and theoretical studies seeking to probe the causes and consequences of this variability. Whether it be in the context of antibiotic treatments or exponential growth in constant environments, non-genetic variability has significant effects on population dynamics. Here, we review research that elucidates the relationship between cell-to-cell variability and population dynamics. After summarizing the relevant experimental observations, we discuss models of bet-hedging and phenotypic switching. In the context of these models, we discuss how switching between phenotypes at the single-cell level can help populations survive in uncertain environments. Next, we review more fine-grained models of phenotypic variability where the relationship between single-cell growth rates, generation times and cell sizes is explicitly considered. Variability in these traits can have significant effects on the population dynamics, even in a constant environment. We show how these effects can be highly sensitive to the underlying model assumptions. We close by discussing a number of open questions, such as how environmental and intrinsic variability interact and what the role of non-genetic variability in evolutionary dynamics is.
Original languageEnglish
Article number116601
Number of pages18
JournalReports on Progress in Physics
Issue number11
StatePublished - 10 Nov 2021
Externally publishedYes


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