One crucial feature of almost all bacterial infections is the need for the invading pathogen to reach a critical cell population density sufficient to overcome host defences and establish the infection. Controlling the expression of virulence determinants in concert with cell population density may therefore confer a significant survival advantage on the pathogen such that the host is overwhelmed before a defence response can be fully initiated. Many different bacterial pathogens are now known to regulate diverse physiological processes including virulence in a cell-density-dependent manner through cell-cell communication. This phenomenon, which relies on the interaction of a diffusible signal molecule (e.g. an N-acylhomoserine lactone) with a sensor or transcriptional activator to couple gene expression with cell population density, has become known as 'quorum sensing'. Although the size of the 'quorum' is likely to be highly variable and influenced by the diffusibility of the signal molecule within infected tissues, nevertheless quorum-sensing signal molecules can be detected in vivo in both experimental animal model and human infections. Furthermore, certain quorum-sensing molecules have been shown to possess pharmacological and immunomodulatory activity such that they may function as virulence determinants per se. As a consequence, quorum sensing constitutes a novel therapeutic target for the design of small molecular antagonists capable of attenuating virulence through the blockade of bacterial cell-cell communication.