Signaling in Bacteria

Signaling in bacteria enables bacteria to monitor extracellular conditions, ensure that there are sufficient amounts of nutrients, and ensure that hazardous situations are avoided. There are circumstances, however, when bacteria communicate with each other.

The first evidence of bacterial communication was observed in a bacterium that has a symbiotic relationship with Hawaiian bobtail squid. When the population density of the bacteria reaches a certain level, specific gene expression is initiated, and the bacteria produce bioluminescent proteins that emit light. Because the number of cells present in the environment (cell density) is the determining factor for signaling, bacterial signaling was named quorum sensing. In politics and business, a quorum is the minimum number of members required to be present to vote on an issue.

Quorum sensing uses autoinducers as signaling molecules. Autoinducers are signaling molecules secreted by bacteria to communicate with other bacteria of the same kind. The secreted autoinducers can be small, hydrophobic molecules such as acyl-homoserine lactone, (AHL) or larger peptide-based molecules; each type of molecule has a different mode of action. When AHL enters target bacteria, it binds to transcription factors, which then switch gene expression on or off (see Figure 1). The peptide autoinducers stimulate more complicated signaling pathways that include bacterial kinases. The changes in bacteria following exposure to autoinducers can be quite extensive. The pathogenic bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa has 616 different genes that respond to autoinducers.

Practice Question

The left part of this illustration shows a single bacterial cell. The cell produces autoinducers, which diffuse away from the cell and cannot bind the intracellular receptor. The right part of this illustration shows many bacterial cells. More autoinducers are present, which bind receptors that in turn bind DNA and regulate the expression of certain genes. Autoinducer gene expression is turned on, resulting in a positive-feedback loop.

Figure 1. Autoinducers are small molecules or proteins produced by bacteria that regulate gene expression.

Which of the following statements about quorum sensing is false?

  1. Autoinducer must bind to receptor to turn on transcription of genes responsible for the production of more autoinducer.
  2. The receptor stays in the bacterial cell, but the autoinducer diffuses out.
  3. Autoinducer can only act on a different cell: it cannot act on the cell in which it is made.
  4. Autoinducer turns on genes that enable the bacteria to form a biofilm.

Some species of bacteria that use quorum sensing form biofilms, complex colonies of bacteria (often containing several species) that exchange chemical signals to coordinate the release of toxins that will attack the host. Bacterial biofilms (Figure 2) can sometimes be found on medical equipment; when biofilms invade implants such as hip or knee replacements or heart pacemakers, they can cause life-threatening infections.

Cell-cell communication enables Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (Figure 2a) to work together to form a biofilm inside a hospital patient’s catheter, seen here via scanning electron microscopy. S. aureus is the main cause of hospital-acquired infections. Hawaiian bobtail squid (Figure 2b) have a symbiotic relationship with the bioluminescent bacteria Vibrio fischeri. The luminescence makes it difficult to see the squid from below because it effectively eliminates its shadow. In return for camouflage, the squid provides food for the bacteria. Free-living V. fischeri do not produce luciferase, the enzyme responsible for luminescence, but V. fischeri living in a symbiotic relationship with the squid do. Quorum sensing determines whether the bacteria should produce the luciferase enzyme.

Practice Question

Part a: This electron micrograph shows a film of bacteria. Part b: This photo shows a Hawaiian bobtail squid.

Figure 2. (a) Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. (b) Hawaiian bobtail squid. (credit a: modifications of work by CDC/Janice Carr; credit b: modifications of work by Cliff1066/Flickr)

What advantage might biofilm production confer on the S. aureus inside the catheter?

Research on the details of quorum sensing has led to advances in growing bacteria for industrial purposes. Recent discoveries suggest that it may be possible to exploit bacterial signaling pathways to control bacterial growth; this process could replace or supplement antibiotics that are no longer effective in certain situations.

Watch geneticist Bonnie Bassler discuss her discovery of quorum sensing in biofilm bacteria in squid.

You can view the transcript for “How Bacteria ‘Talk’ ” here (link opens in new window).

Watch this collection of interview clips with biofilm researchers in “What Are Bacterial Biofilms?”

You can view the transcript for “What are Bacterial Biofilms? A Six Minute Montage” here (link opens in new window).

Practice Questions

Quorum sensing is triggered to begin when ___________.

  1. treatment with antibiotics occurs
  2. bacteria release growth hormones
  3. bacterial protein expression is switched on
  4. a sufficient number of bacteria are present

Why is signaling in multicellular organisms more complicated than signaling in single-celled organisms?