Transcriptional activity around bacterial cell death reveals molecular biomarkers for cell viability

Remco Kort, Bart J Keijser, Martien P M Caspers, Frank H J Schuren, Roy C Montijn

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


BACKGROUND: In bacteriology, the ability to grow in selective media and to form colonies on nutrient agar plates is routinely used as a retrospective criterion for the detection of living bacteria. However, the utilization of indicators for bacterial viability-such as the presence of specific transcripts or membrane integrity-would overcome bias introduced by cultivation and reduces the time span of analysis from initiation to read out. Therefore, we investigated the correlation between transcriptional activity, membrane integrity and cultivation-based viability in the Gram-positive model bacterium Bacillus subtilis.

RESULTS: We present microbiological, cytological and molecular analyses of the physiological response to lethal heat stress under accurately defined conditions through systematic sampling of bacteria from a single culture exposed to gradually increasing temperatures. We identified a coherent transcriptional program including known heat shock responses as well as the rapid expression of a small number of sporulation and competence genes, the latter only known to be active in the stationary growth phase.

CONCLUSION: The observed coordinated gene expression continued even after cell death, in other words after all bacteria permanently lost their ability to reproduce. Transcription of a very limited number of genes correlated with cell viability under the applied killing regime. The transcripts of the expressed genes in living bacteria -- but silent in dead bacteria-include those of essential genes encoding chaperones of the protein folding machinery and can serve as molecular biomarkers for bacterial cell viability.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)590
JournalBMC Genomics
Publication statusPublished - 6 Dec 2008


  • Bacillus subtilis
  • Biomarkers
  • Colony Count, Microbial
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial
  • Heat-Shock Response
  • Hot Temperature
  • Microbial Viability
  • Multigene Family
  • Oligonucleotide Array Sequence Analysis
  • RNA Stability
  • RNA, Bacterial
  • Transcription, Genetic
  • Transcriptional Activation
  • Journal Article


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