Adaptability is an essential property of many sensory systems, enabling maintenance of a sensitive response over a range of background stimulus levels. In bacterial chemotaxis, adaptation to the preset level of pathway activity is achieved through an integral feedback mechanism based on activity-dependent methylation of chemoreceptors. It has been argued that this architecture ensures precise and robust adaptation regardless of the ambient ligand concentration, making perfect adaptation a celebrated property of the chemotaxis system. However, possible deviations from such ideal adaptive behavior and its consequences for chemotaxis have not been explored in detail. Here we show that the chemotaxis pathway in Escherichia coli shows increasingly imprecise adaptation to higher concentrations of attractants, with a clear correlation between the time of adaptation to a step-like stimulus and the extent of imprecision. Our analysis suggests that this imprecision results from a gradual saturation of receptor methylation sites at high levels of stimulation, which prevents full recovery of the pathway activity by violating the conditions required for precise adaptation. We further use computer simulations to show that limited imprecision of adaptation has little effect on the rate of chemotactic drift of a bacterial population in gradients, but hinders precise accumulation at the peak of the gradient. Finally, we show that for two major chemoeffectors, serine and cysteine, failure of adaptation at concentrations above 1 mM might prevent bacteria from accumulating at toxic concentrations of these amino acids.
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