For many years bacteria were considered primarily as autonomous unicellular organisms with little capacity for collective behaviour. However, we now appreciate that bacterial cells are in fact, highly communicative. The generic term 'quorum sensing' has been adopted to describe the bacterial cell-to-cell communication mechanisms which co-ordinate gene expression usually, but not always, when the population has reached a high cell density. Quorum sensing depends on the synthesis of small molecules (often referred to as pheromones or autoinducers) that diffuse in and out of bacterial cells. As the bacterial population density increases, so does the synthesis of quorum sensing signal molecules, and consequently, their concentration in the external environment rises. Once a critical threshold concentration has been reached, a target sensor kinase or response regulator is activated (or repressed) so facilitating the expression of quorum sensing-dependent genes. Quorum sensing enables a bacterial population to mount a co-operative response that improves access to nutrients or specific environmental niches, promotes collective defence against other competitor prokaryotes or eukaryotic defence mechanisms and facilitates survival through differentiation into morphological forms better able to combat environmental threats. Quorum sensing also crosses the prokaryotic-eukaryotic boundary since quorum sensing-dependent signalling can be exploited or inactivated by both plants and mammals.