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

Jennifer B. Rattray, Stephen A. Thomas, Yifei Wang, Evgeniya Molotkova, James Gurney, John J. Varga, Sam P. Brown*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


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.

Original languageEnglish
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022
Externally publishedYes

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  • KEYWORDS bacterial communication
  • quorum sensing
  • reaction norm
  • sociomicrobiology


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