Here, we studied how protist predation affects cooperation in the opportunistic pathogen bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which uses quorum sensing (QS) cell-to-cell signalling to regulate the production of public goods. By competing wild-type bacteria with QS mutants (cheats), we show that a functioning QS system confers an elevated resistance to predation. Surprisingly, cheats were unable to exploit this resistance in the presence of cooperators, which suggests that resistance does not appear to result from activation of QS-regulated public goods. Instead, elevated resistance of wild-type bacteria was related to the ability to form more predation-resistant biofilms. This could be explained by the expression of QS-regulated resistance traits in densely populated biofilms and floating cell aggregations, or alternatively, by a pleiotropic cost of cheating where less resistant cheats are selectively removed from biofilms. These results show that trophic interactions among species can maintain cooperation within species, and have further implications for P. aeruginosa virulence in environmental reservoirs by potentially enriching the cooperative and highly infective strains with functional QS system.
Keywords: Pseudomonas aeruginosa; Tetrahymena pyriformis; biofilm; non-social selection; pleiotropy; quorum sensing.