Bacteria-host communication: the language of hormones

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003 Jul 22;100(15):8951-6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1537100100. Epub 2003 Jul 7.


The interbacterial communication system known as quorum sensing (QS) utilizes hormone-like compounds referred to as autoinducers to regulate bacterial gene expression. Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) serotype O157:H7 is the agent responsible for outbreaks of bloody diarrhea in several countries. We previously proposed that EHEC uses a QS regulatory system to "sense" that it is within the intestine and activate genes essential for intestinal colonization. The QS system used by EHEC is the LuxS/autoinducer 2 (AI-2) system extensively involved in interspecies communication. The autoinducer AI-2 is a furanosyl borate diester whose synthesis depends on the enzyme LuxS. Here we show that an EHEC luxS mutant, unable to produce the bacterial autoinducer, still responds to a eukaryotic cell signal to activate expression of its virulence genes. We have identified this signal as the hormone epinephrine and show that beta- and alpha-adrenergic antagonists can block the bacterial response to this hormone. Furthermore, using purified and in vitro synthesized AI-2 we showed that AI-2 is not the autoinducer involved in the bacterial signaling. EHEC produces another, previously undescribed autoinducer (AI-3) whose synthesis depends on the presence of LuxS. These results imply a potential cross-communication between the luxS/AI-3 bacterial QS system and the epinephrine host signaling system. Given that eukaryotic cell-to-cell signaling typically occurs through hormones, and that bacterial cell-to-cell signaling occurs through QS, we speculate that QS might be a "language" by which bacteria and host cells communicate.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics
  • Bacterial Proteins / physiology*
  • Carbon-Sulfur Lyases
  • Epinephrine / metabolism
  • Escherichia coli Infections / etiology
  • Escherichia coli Infections / metabolism
  • Escherichia coli Infections / microbiology
  • Escherichia coli O157 / genetics
  • Escherichia coli O157 / pathogenicity*
  • Escherichia coli O157 / physiology*
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / genetics
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / physiology
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial
  • Genes, Bacterial
  • HeLa Cells
  • Homoserine / analogs & derivatives*
  • Homoserine / genetics
  • Homoserine / physiology*
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Lactones
  • Mutation
  • Phosphoproteins*
  • Signal Transduction
  • Virulence / genetics
  • Virulence / physiology


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • LEE protein, E coli
  • Lactones
  • N-octanoylhomoserine lactone
  • Phosphoproteins
  • Homoserine
  • Carbon-Sulfur Lyases
  • LuxS protein, Bacteria
  • Epinephrine