Acylated homoserine lactone (AHL)-mediated gene expression controls phenotypes involved in colonization, often specifically of higher organisms, in both marine and terrestrial environments. The marine red alga Delisea pulchra produces halogenated furanones which resemble AHLs structurally and show inhibitory activity at ecologically realistic concentrations in AHL bioassays. Evidence is presented that halogenated furanones displace tritiated OHHL [N-3-(oxohexanoyl)-L-homoserine lactone] from Escherichia coli cells overproducing LuxR with potencies corresponding to their respective inhibitory activities in an AHL-regulated bioluminescence assay, indicating that this is the mechanism by which furanones inhibit AHL-dependent phenotypes. Alternative mechanisms for this phenomenon are also addressed. General metabolic disruption was assessed with two-dimensional PAGE, revealing limited non-AHL-related effects. A direct chemical interaction between the algal compounds and AHLs, as monitored by 1H NMR spectroscopy, was shown not to occur in vitro. These results support the contention that furanones, at the concentrations produced by the alga, can control bacterial colonization of surfaces by specifically interfering with AHL-mediated gene expression at the level of the LuxR protein.