Quorum sensing and Chromobacterium violaceum: exploitation of violacein production and inhibition for the detection of N-acylhomoserine lactones

Microbiology. 1997 Dec;143 ( Pt 12):3703-11. doi: 10.1099/00221287-143-12-3703.


Quorum sensing relies upon the interaction of a diffusible signal molecule with a transcriptional activator protein to couple gene expression with cell population density. In Gram-negative bacteria, such signal molecules are usually N-acylhomoserine lactones (AHLs) which differ in the structure of their N-acyl side chains. Chromobacterium violaceum, a Gram-negative bacterium commonly found in soil and water, produces the characteristic purple pigment violacein. Previously the authors described a violacein-negative, mini-Tn5 mutant of C. violaceum (CV026) in which pigment production can be restored by incubation with supernatants from the wild-type strain. To develop this mutant as a general biosensor for AHLs, the natural C. violaceum AHL molecule was first chemically characterized. By using solvent extraction, HPLC and mass spectrometry, a single AHL, N-hexanoyl-L-homoserine lactone (HHL), was identified in wild-type C. violaceum culture supernatants which was absent from CV026. Since the production of violacein constitutes a simple assay for the detection of AHLs, we explored the ability of CV026 to respond to a series of synthetic AHL and N-acylhomocysteine thiolactone (AHT) analogues. In CV026, violacein is inducible by all the AHL and AHT compounds evaluated with N-acyl side chains from C4 to C8 in length, with varying degrees of sensitivity. Although AHL compounds with N-acyl side chains from C10 to C14 are unable to induce violacein production, if an activating AHL (e.g. HHL) is incorporated into the agar, these long-chain AHLs can be detected by their ability to inhibit violacein production. The versatility of CV026 in facilitating detection of AHL mixtures extracted from culture supernatants and separated by thin-layer chromatography is also demonstrated. These simple bioassays employing CV026 thus greatly extend the ability to detect a wide spectrum of AHL signal molecules.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Chromobacterium / genetics
  • Chromobacterium / physiology*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial*
  • Homoserine / analogs & derivatives
  • Homoserine / chemistry
  • Homoserine / metabolism*
  • Indoles*
  • Lactones / chemistry
  • Lactones / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction
  • Trypanocidal Agents*


  • Indoles
  • Lactones
  • Trypanocidal Agents
  • Homoserine
  • violacein