Bacterial Quorum Sensing Allows Graded and Bimodal Cellular Responses to Variations in Population Density

mBio. 2022 Jun 28;13(3):e0074522. doi: 10.1128/mbio.00745-22. Epub 2022 May 18.


Quorum sensing (QS) is a mechanism of cell-cell communication that connects gene expression to environmental conditions (e.g., cell density) in many bacterial species, mediated by diffusible signal molecules. Current functional studies focus on qualitatively distinct QS ON/OFF states. In the context of density sensing, this view led to the adoption of a "quorum" analogy in which populations sense when they are above a sufficient density (i.e., "quorate") to efficiently turn on cooperative behaviors. This framework overlooks the potential for intermediate, graded responses to shifts in the environment. In this study, we tracked QS-regulated protease (lasB) expression and showed that Pseudomonas aeruginosa can deliver a graded behavioral response to fine-scale variation in population density, on both the population and single-cell scales. On the population scale, we saw a graded response to variation in population density (controlled by culture carrying capacity). On the single-cell scale, we saw significant bimodality at higher densities, with separate OFF and ON subpopulations that responded differentially to changes in density: a static OFF population of cells and increasing intensity of expression among the ON population of cells. Together, these results indicate that QS can tune gene expression to graded environmental change, with no critical cell mass or "quorum" at which behavioral responses are activated on either the individual-cell or population scale. In an infection context, our results indicate there is not a hard threshold separating a quorate "attack" mode from a subquorate "stealth" mode. IMPORTANCE Bacteria can be highly social, controlling collective behaviors via cell-cell communication mechanisms known as quorum sensing (QS). QS is now a large research field, yet a basic question remains unanswered: what is the environmental resolution of QS? The notion of a threshold, or "quorum," separating coordinated ON and OFF states is a central dogma in QS, but recent studies have shown heterogeneous responses at a single cell scale. Using Pseudomonas aeruginosa, we showed that populations generate graded responses to environmental variation through shifts in the proportion of cells responding and the intensity of responses. In an infection context, our results indicate that there is not a hard threshold separating a quorate "attack" mode and a subquorate "stealth" mode.

Keywords: bacterial communication; quorum sensing; reaction norm; sociomicrobiology.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial
  • Population Density
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa* / metabolism
  • Quorum Sensing* / genetics