- Background Phenotypic heterogeneity may ensure that a small fraction of a population survives environmental perturbations or may result in lysis in a subpopulation, to increase the survival of siblings. Genes involved in DNA repair and population dynamics play key roles in rapid responses to environmental conditions. In Escherichia coli the transcriptional repressor LexA controls a coordinated cellular response to DNA damage designated the SOS response. Expression of LexA regulated genes, e.g. colicin encoding genes, recA, lexA and umuDC, was examined utilizing transcription fusions with the promoterless gfp at the single cell level. Results The investigated LexA regulated genes exhibited heterogeneity, as only in a small fraction of the population more intense fluorescence was observed. Unlike recA and lexA, the pore forming and nuclease colicin activity genes as well as umuDC, exhibited no basal level activity. However, in a lexA defective strain high level expression of the gene fusions was observed in the large majority of the cells. All of the investigated genes were expressed in a recA defective strain, albeit at lower levels, revealing expression in the absence of a spontaneous SOS response. In addition, the simultaneous expression of cka, encoding the pore forming colicin K, and lexA, investigated at the single cell level revealed high level expression of only cka in rare individual cells. Conclusion LexA regulated genes exhibit phenotypic heterogeneity as high level expression is observed in only a small subpopulation of cells. Heterogenous expression is established primarily by stochastic factors and the binding affinity of LexA to SOS boxes.