Reversible non-genetic phenotypic heterogeneity in bacterial quorum sensing

Text - scientific article/review article


Bacteria co-ordinate their social behaviour in a density-dependent manner by production of diffusible signal molecules by a process known as quorum sensing (QS). It is generally assumed that in homogenous environments and at high cell density, QS synchronizes cells in the population to perform collective social tasks in unison which maximize the benefit at the inclusive fitness of individuals. However, evolutionary theory predicts that maintaining phenotypic heterogeneity in performing social tasks is advantageous as it can serve as a bet-hedging survival strategy. Using Pseudomonas syringae and Xanthomonas campestris as model organisms, which use two diverse classes of QS signals, we show that two distinct subpopulations of QS-responsive and non-responsive cells exist in the QS-activated population. Addition of excess exogenous QS signal does not significantly alter the distribution of QS-responsive and non-responsive cells in the population. We further show that progeny of cells derived from these subpopulations also exhibited heterogeneous distribution patterns similar to their respective parental strains. Overall, these results support the model that bacteria maintain QS-responsive and non-responsive subpopulations at high cell densities in a bet-hedging strategy to simultaneously perform functions that are both positively and negatively regulated by QS to improve their fitness in fluctuating environments.


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  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa
  • Xanthomonas campestris pv. campestris
  • Xylella fastidiosa


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