Most bacteria in the biosphere are predicted to be polylysogens harbouring multiple prophages 1–5. In studied systems, prophage induction from lysogeny to lysis is near-universally driven by DNA-damaging agents 6. Thus, how co-residing prophages compete for cell resources if they respond to an identical trigger is unknown. Here we discover regulatory modules that control prophage induction independently of the DNA-damage cue. The modules bear little resemblance at the sequence level but share a regulatory logic by having a transcription factor that activates the expression of a neighbouring gene that encodes a small protein. The small protein inactivates the master repressor of lysis, which leads to induction. Polylysogens that harbour two prophages exposed to DNA damage release mixed populations of phages. Single-cell analyses reveal that this blend is a consequence of discrete subsets of cells producing one, the other or both phages. By contrast, induction through the DNA-damage-independent module results in cells producing only the phage sensitive to that specific cue. Thus, in the polylysogens tested, the stimulus used to induce lysis determines phage productivity. Considering the lack of potent DNA-damaging agents in natural habitats, additional phage-encoded sensory pathways to lysis likely have fundamental roles in phage–host biology and inter-prophage competition.
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