The discovery that bacterial cells can communicate with each other has led to the realization that bacteria are capable of exhibiting much more complex patterns of co-operative behaviour than would be expected for simple unicellular microorganisms. Now generically termed 'quorum sensing', bacterial cell-to-cell communication enables a bacterial population to mount a unified response that is advantageous to its survival by improving access to complex nutrients or environmental niches, collective defence against other competitive microorganisms or eukaryotic host defence mechanisms and optimization of population survival by differentiation into morphological forms better adapted to combating environmental threats. The principle of quorum sensing encompasses the production and release of signal molecules by bacterial cells within a population. Such molecules are released into the environment and, as cell numbers increase, so does the extracellular level of signal molecule, until the bacteria sense that a threshold has been reached and gene activation, or in some cases depression or repression, occurs via the activity of sensor-regulator systems. In this review, we will describe the biochemistry and molecular biology of a number of well-characterized N-acylhomoserine lactone quorum sensing systems to illustrate how bacteria employ cell-to-cell signalling to adjust their physiology in accordance with the prevailing high-population-density environment.