Phenotypic diversity provides populations of prokaryotic and eukaryotic organisms with the flexibility required to adapt to and/or survive environmental perturbations. Consequently, there is much interest in unraveling the molecular mechanisms of heterogeneity. A classical example of heterogeneity in Escherichia coli is the subset (3%) of the population that expresses the colicin K activity gene (cka) upon nutrient starvation. Here, we report on the mechanism underlying this variable response. As colicin synthesis is regulated by the LexA protein, the central regulator of the SOS response, we focused on the role of LexA and the SOS system in the variable cka expression. Real-time RT-PCR showed that the SOS system, without exogenous DNA damage, induces moderate levels of cka expression. The use of cka–gfp fusions demonstrated that modification of the conserved LexA boxes in the cka promoter region affected LexA binding affinity and the percentage of cka–gfp expressing cells in the population. A lexA–gfp fusion showed that the lexA gene is highly expressed in a subset of bacteria. Furthermore, cka–gfp fusions cloned into higher copy plasmid vectors increased the percentage of cka–gfp positive bacteria. Together, these results indicate that the bistability in cka expression in the bacterial population is determined by (1) basal SOS activity, (2) stochastic factors and possibly (3) the interplay of LexA dimers at cka operator. Other LexA regulated processes could exhibit similar regulation.