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Access to the article is free, however registration and sign-in are required. Why some cells remain in one phenotypic state whereas others switch to a different one, and what the molecular processes are that cause cells to "play dice" when determining their fate, remain open questions. Maamar et al. tackle these questions using the soil bacterium Bacillus subtilis. They find that the random nature of the phenotypic choice made by these bacteria to remain vegetative (dormant) or become "competent" (able to take up DNA from the environment) can be traced to variable expression of a single protein. Although many organisms exhibit phenotypic variability driven by stochastic gene expression, the B. subtilis system is of particular interest because variation ("noise") in protein expression is thought to play a key role in the natural behavior of a population.
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