Cooperation in the dark: signalling and collective action in quorum-sensing bacteria

S. P. Brown, R. A. Johnstone


The study of quorum–sensing bacteria has revealed a widespread mechanism of coordinating bacterial gene expression with cell density. By monitoring a constitutively produced signal molecule, individual bacteria can limit their expression of group–beneficial phenotypes to cell densities that guarantee an effective group outcome. In this paper, we attempt to move away from a commonly expressed view that these impressive feats of coordination are examples of multicellularity in prokaryotic populations. Here, we look more closely at the individual conflict underlying this cooperation, illustrating that, even under significant levels of genetic conflict, signalling and resultant cooperative behaviour can stably exist. A predictive two–trait model of signal strength and of the extent of cooperation is developed as a function of relatedness (reflecting multiplicity of infection) and basic population demographic parameters. The model predicts that the strength of quorum signalling will increase as conflict (multiplicity of infecting strains) increases, as individuals attempt to coax more cooperative contributions from their competitors, leading to a devaluation of the signal as an indicator of density. Conversely, as genetic conflict increases, the model predicts that the threshold density for cooperation will increase and the subsequent strength of group cooperation will be depressed.

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