Quorum sensing and the cell-cell communication dependent regulation of gene expression in pathogenic and non-pathogenic bacteria

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Abstract

Although it has been clear for some time that individual bacterial cells employ intra-cellular signalling systems to sense, integrate and process information from their surroundings, their widespread capacity to perceive information from other bacterial cells is only just beginning to be recognised. Recent work has established that diverse bacteria exploit a cell-cell communication device to regulate the transcription of multiple target genes. This communication device termed ’quorum sensing‘, depends on the production of one or more diffusible signal molecules termed ’autoinducers‘ or ’pheromones‘ which enable a bacterium to monitor its own cell population density. Quorum sensing is thus an example of multicellular behaviour in prokaryotes and regulates diverse physiological processes including bioluminescence, swarming, antibiotic biosynthesis, plasmid conjugal transfer and the production of virulence determinants in animal, fish and plant pathogens. In Gram-negative bacteria, the best understood family of signal molecules are the N-acylhomoserine lactones (AHLs) which vary predominantly in the presence or absence of an acyl chain C3 substituent (oxo- or hydroxy-) and length of the N-acyl side chain. However not all quorum sensing signal molecules are AHLs; in Gram-positive bacteria, they are often post-translationally modified peptides. Irrespective of the chemical ’language‘ employed, interference with either the synthesis or transmission of a quorum sensing signal molecule in pathogenic bacteria offers an exciting new strategy for controlling infection.

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