Babu M, Gagarinova A, Emili A

Methods Mol Biol. 2011;781:99–126

Cellular processes are carried out through a series of molecular interactions. Various experimental approaches can be used to investigate thesefunctional relationships on a large-scale. Recently, the power of investigating biological systems from the perspective of genetic (gene-gene, or epistatic) interactions has been evidenced by the ability to elucidate novel functional relationships. Examples of functionally related genes include genes that buffer each other’s function or impinge on the same biological process. Genetic interactions have traditionally been investigated in bacteria by combining pairs of mutations (for example, gene deletions) and assessing deviation of the phenotype of each double mutant from an expected neutral (or no interaction) phenotype. Fitness is a particularly convenient phenotype to measure: when the double mutant grows faster or slower than expected, the two mutated genes are said to show alleviating or aggravating interactions, respectively. The most commonly used neutral model assumes that the fitness of the double mutant is equal to the product of individual single mutant fitness. A striking genetic interaction is exemplified by the loss of two nonessential genes that buffer each other in performing an essential biological function: deleting only one of these genes produces no detectable fitness defect; however, loss of both genes simultaneously results in systems failure, leading to synthetic sickness or lethality. Systematic large-scale genetic interaction screens have been used to generate functional maps for model eukaryotic organisms, such as yeast, to describe the functional organization of gene products into pathways and protein complexes within a cell. They also reveal the modular arrangement and cross-talk of pathways and complexes within broader functional neighborhoods (Dixon et al. Annu Rev Genet 43:601-625, 2009). Here, we present a high-throughput quantitative Escherichia coli synthetic genetic array (eSGA) screening procedure, which we developed to systematically infer genetic interactions by scoring growth defects among large numbers of double mutants in a classic gram-negative bacterium. The eSGA method exploits the rapid colony growth, ease of genetic manipulation, and natural efficient genetic exchange via conjugation of laboratory E. coli strains. Replica pinning is used to grow and mate arrayed sets of single-gene mutant strains as well as to select double mutants en mass. Strain fitness, which is used as the eSGA readout, is quantified by the digital imaging of the plates and subsequent measuring and comparing single and double mutant colony sizes. While eSGA can be used to screen select mutants to probe the functions of individual genes; using eSGA more broadly to collect genetic interaction data for many combinations of genes can help reconstruct a functional interaction network to reveal novel links and components of biological pathways as well as unexpected connections between pathways. A variety of bacterial systems can be investigated, wherein the genes impinge on a essential biological process (e.g., cell wall assembly, ribosome biogenesis, chromosome replication) that are of interest from the perspective of drug development (Babu et al. Mol Biosyst 12:1439-1455, 2009). We also show how genetic interactions generated by high-throughput eSGA screens can be validated by manual small-scale genetic crosses and by genetic complementation and gene rescue experiments.