Deciphering the Principles of Bacterial Nitrogen Dietary Preferences: a Strategy for Nutrient Containment

A fundamental question in microbial physiology concerns why organisms prefer certain nutrients to others. For example, among different nitrogen sources, ammonium is the preferred nitrogen source, supporting fast growth, whereas alternative nitrogen sources, such as certain amino acids, are considered to be poor nitrogen sources, supporting much slower exponential growth. However, the physiological/regulatory logic behind such nitrogen dietary choices remains elusive. In this study, by engineering Escherichia coli, we switched the dietary preferences toward amino acids, with growth rates equivalent to that of the wild-type strain grown on ammonia. However, when the engineered strain was cultured together with wild-type E. coli, this growth advantage was diminished as a consequence of ammonium leakage from the transport-and-catabolism (TC)-enhanced (TCE) cells, which are preferentially utilized by wild-type bacteria. Our results reveal that the nitrogen regulatory (Ntr) system fine tunes the expression of amino acid transport and catabolism components to match the flux through the ammonia assimilation pathway such that essential nutrients are retained, but, as a consequence, the fast growth rate on amino acids is sacrificed.