For a genetically identical microbial population, multi-gene expression in various environments requires effective allocation of limited resources and precise control of heterogeneity among individual cells. However, it is unclear how resource allocation and cell-to-cell variation jointly shape the overall performance. Here we demonstrate a Simpson’s paradox during overexpression of multiple genes: two competing proteins in single cells correlated positively for every induction condition, but the overall correlation was negative. Yet this phenomenon was not observed between two competing mRNAs in single cells. Our analytical framework shows that the phenomenon arises from competition for translational resource, with the correlation modulated by both mRNA and ribosome variability. Thus, heterogeneity plays a key role in single-cell multi-gene expression and provides the population with an evolutionary advantage, as demonstrated in this study.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1007643
JournalPLoS computational biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2020


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