Integrating analog and digital modes of gene expression at Arabidopsis FLC

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Quantitative gene regulation at the cell population level can be achieved by two fundamentally different modes of regulation at individual gene copies. A digital mode involves binary ON/OFF expression states, with population-level variation arising from the proportion of gene copies in each state, while an analog mode involves graded expression levels at each gene copy. At the Arabidopsis floral repressor FLOWERING LOCUS C (FLC), digital Polycomb silencing is known to facilitate quantitative epigenetic memory in response to cold. However, whether FLC regulation before cold involves analog or digital modes is unknown. Using quantitative fluorescent imaging of FLC mRNA and protein, together with mathematical modeling, we find that FLC expression before cold is regulated by both analog and digital modes. We observe a temporal separation between the two modes, with analog preceding digital. The analog mode can maintain intermediate expression levels at individual FLC gene copies, before subsequent digital silencing, consistent with the copies switching OFF stochastically and heritably without cold. This switch leads to a slow reduction in FLC expression at the cell population level. These data present a new paradigm for gradual repression, elucidating how analog transcriptional and digital epigenetic memory pathways can be integrated.