Quorum sensing and the social evolution of bacterial virulence

Curr Biol. 2009 Feb 24;19(4):341-5. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.01.050.


The ability of pathogenic bacteria to exploit their hosts depends upon various virulence factors, released in response to the concentration of small autoinducer molecules that are also released by the bacteria [1-5]. In vitro experiments suggest that autoinducer molecules are signals used to coordinate cooperative behaviors and that this process of quorum sensing (QS) can be exploited by individual cells that avoid the cost of either producing or responding to signal [6, 7]. However, whether QS is an exploitable social trait in vivo, and the implications for the evolution of virulence [5, 8-10], remains untested. We show that in mixed infections of the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa, containing quorum-sensing bacteria and mutants that do not respond to signal, virulence in an animal (mouse) model is reduced relative to that of an infection containing no mutants. We show that this is because mutants act as cheats, exploiting the cooperative production of signal and virulence factors by others, and hence increase in frequency. This supports the idea that the invasion of QS mutants in infections of humans [11-13] is due to their social fitness consequences [6, 7, 14] and predicts that increased strain diversity will select for lower virulence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Liver / microbiology
  • Mice
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa* / pathogenicity
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa* / physiology
  • Quorum Sensing / physiology*
  • Skin / microbiology
  • Wounds and Injuries / microbiology
  • Wounds and Injuries / pathology