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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Jan 28;111(4):1586-91. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1316283111. Epub 2014 Jan 14.

Private link between signal and response in Bacillus subtilis quorum sensing.

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Department of Food Science and Technology, Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana, 1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia.


Bacteria coordinate their behavior using quorum sensing (QS), whereby cells secrete diffusible signals that generate phenotypic responses associated with group living. The canonical model of QS is one of extracellular signaling, where signal molecules bind to cognate receptors and cause a coordinated response across many cells. Here we study the link between QS input (signaling) and QS output (response) in the ComQXPA QS system of Bacillus subtilis by characterizing the phenotype and fitness of comQ null mutants. These lack the enzyme to produce the ComX signal and do not activate the ComQXPA QS system in other cells. In addition to the activation effect of the signal, however, we find evidence of a second, repressive effect of signal production on the QS system. Unlike activation, which can affect other cells, repression acts privately: the de-repression of QS in comQ cells is intracellular and only affects mutant cells lacking ComQ. As a result, the QS signal mutants have an overly responsive QS system and overproduce the secondary metabolite surfactin in the presence of the signal. This surfactin overproduction is associated with a strong fitness cost, as resources are diverted away from primary metabolism. Therefore, by acting as a private QS repressor, ComQ may be protected against evolutionary competition from loss-of-function mutations. Additionally, we find that surfactin participates in a social selection mechanism that targets signal null mutants in coculture with signal producers. Our study shows that by pleiotropically combining intracellular and extracellular signaling, bacteria may generate evolutionarily stable QS systems.


social evolution; social interactions

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