Dynamics and heterogeneity of Erk-induced immediate-early gene expression.
Abstract: Many canonical signaling pathways exhibit complex time-varying responses, yet how minutes-timescale pulses of signaling interact with the dynamics of transcription and gene expression remains poorly understood. Erk-induced immediate early gene (IEG) expression is a model of this interface, exemplifying both dynamic pathway activity and a rapid, potent transcriptional response. Here, we quantitatively characterize IEG expression downstream of dynamic Erk stimuli in individual cells. We find that IEG expression responds rapidly to acute changes in Erk activity, but only in a sub-population of stimulus-responsive cells. We find that while Erk activity partially predicts IEG expression, a majority of response heterogeneity is independent of Erk and can be rapidly tuned by different mitogenic stimuli and parallel signaling pathways. We extend our findings to an in vivo context, the mouse epidermis, where we observe heterogenous immediate-early gene accumulation in both fixed tissue and single-cell RNA-sequencing data. Our results demonstrate that signaling dynamics can be faithfully transmitted to gene expression and suggest that the signaling-responsive population is an important parameter for interpreting gene expression responses.