Fatty Acid Availability Sets Cell Envelope Capacity and Dictates Microbial Cell Size

Stephen Vadia, Jessica L. Tse, Rafael Lucena, Zhizhou Yang, Douglas R. Kellogg, Jue D. Wang, Petra Anne Levin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

91 Scopus citations


Nutrients—and by extension biosynthetic capacity—positively impact cell size in organisms throughout the tree of life. In bacteria, cell size is reduced 3-fold in response to nutrient starvation or accumulation of the alarmone ppGpp, a global inhibitor of biosynthesis. However, whether biosynthetic capacity as a whole determines cell size or whether particular anabolic pathways are more important than others remains an open question. Here we identify fatty acid synthesis as the primary biosynthetic determinant of Escherichia coli size and present evidence supporting a similar role for fatty acids as a positive determinant of size in the Gram-positive bacterium Bacillus subtilis and the single-celled eukaryote Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Altering fatty acid synthesis recapitulated the impact of altering nutrients on cell size and morphology, whereas defects in other biosynthetic pathways had either a negligible or fatty-acid-dependent effect on size. Together, our findings support a novel “outside-in” model in which fatty acid availability sets cell envelope capacity, which in turn dictates cell size. In the absence of ppGpp, limiting fatty acid synthesis leads to cell lysis, supporting a role for ppGpp as a linchpin linking expansion of cytoplasmic volume to the growth of the cell envelope to preserve cellular integrity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1757-1767.e5
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number12
StatePublished - Jun 19 2017


  • cell size
  • fatty acids
  • growth rate control
  • lipids
  • nutrient dependent
  • ppGpp
  • the growth law


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