Clonal populations of microbial cells often show a high degree of phenotypic variability under homogeneous conditions. Stochastic fluctuations in the cellular components that determine cellular states can cause two distinct subpopulations, a property called bistability. Phenotypic heterogeneity can be readily obtained by interlinking multiple gene regulatory pathways, effectively resulting in a genetic logic-AND gate. Although switching between states can occur within the cells' lifetime, cells can also pass their cellular state over to the next generation by a mechanism known as epigenetic inheritance and thus perpetuate the phenotypic state. Importantly, heterogeneous populations can demonstrate increased fitness compared with homogeneous populations. This suggests that microbial cells employ bet-hedging strategies to maximize survival. Here, we discuss the possible roles of interlinked bistable networks, epigenetic inheritance, and bet-hedging in bacteria.
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