Starvation induces shrinkage of the bacterial cytoplasm

Handuo Shi, Corey S. Westfall, Jesse Kao, Pascal D. Odermatt, Sarah E. Anderson, Spencer Cesar, Montana Sievert, Jeremy Moore, Carlos G. Gonzalez, Lichao Zhang, Joshua E. Elias, Fred Chang, Kerwyn Casey Huang, Petra Anne Levin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Environmental fluctuations are a common challenge for single-celled organisms; enteric bacteria such as Escherichia coli experience dramatic changes in nutrient availability, pH, and temperature during their journey into and out of the host. While the effects of altered nutrient availability on gene expression and protein synthesis are well known, their impacts on cytoplasmic dynamics and cell morphology have been largely overlooked. Here, we discover that depletion of utilizable nutrients results in shrinkage of E. coli’s inner membrane from the cell wall. Shrinkage was accompanied by an ∼17% reduction in cytoplasmic volume and a concurrent increase in periplasmic volume. Inner membrane retraction after sudden starvation occurred almost exclusively at the new cell pole. This phenomenon was distinct from turgor-mediated plasmolysis and independent of new transcription, translation, or canonical starvation-sensing pathways. Cytoplasmic dry-mass density increased during shrinkage, suggesting that it is driven primarily by loss of water. Shrinkage was reversible: upon a shift to nutrient-rich medium, expansion started almost immediately at a rate dependent on carbon source quality. A robust entry into and recovery from shrinkage required the Tol-Pal system, highlighting the importance of envelope coupling during shrinkage and recovery. Klebsiella pneumoniae also exhibited shrinkage when shifted to carbon-free conditions, suggesting a conserved phenomenon. These findings demonstrate that even when Gram-negative bacterial growth is arrested, cell morphology and physiology are still dynamic.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2104686118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number24
StatePublished - Jun 15 2021


  • Cytoplasmic density
  • Microbial stress response
  • Periplasm
  • Starvation
  • Stationary phase


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