Cell-to-cell variance in protein levels (noise) is a ubiquitous phenomenon that can increase fitness by generating phenotypic differences within clonal populations of cells. An important challenge is to identify the specific molecular events that control noise. This task is complicated by the strong dependence of a protein's cell-to-cell variance on its mean expression level through a power-law like relationship (σ2αμ 1.69). Here, we dissect the nature of this relationship using a stochastic model parameterized with experimentally measured values. This framework naturally recapitulates the power-law like relationship (σ2αμ1.6) and accurately predicts protein variance across the yeast proteome (r2 = 0.935). Using this model we identified two distinct mechanisms by which protein variance can be increased. Variables that affect promoter activation, such as nucleosome positioning, increase protein variance by changing the exponent of the power-law relationship. In contrast, variables that affect processes downstream of promoter activation, such as mRNA and protein synthesis, increase protein variance in a mean-dependent manner following the power-law. We verified our findings experimentally using an inducible gene expression system in yeast. We conclude that the power-law-like relationship between noise and protein mean is due to the kinetics of promoter activation. Our results provide a framework for understanding how molecular processes shape stochastic variation across the genome.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere102202
JournalPloS one
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 25 2014


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