Ecological feedback in quorum-sensing microbial populations
Bacteria and other microbes can communicate with each other using chemical languages. They release small signaling molecules called autoinducers into their surroundings and sense the levels of the autoinducers in the environment. The response to these autoinducers – known as quorum sensing – can regulate how whole communities of microbes grow and behave; for example, autoinducers can alter the ability of microbes to infect humans or enable the microbes to collectively switch on light production.
Recent experiments suggest that, in a population of genetically identical microbes, some individuals may produce autoinducers while others do not. The coexistence of these different “phenotypes” in one population may enable different individuals to perform different roles, or act as a “bet-hedging” strategy that helps the population to survive if it is later exposed to a stressful situation.
It is not clear how microbes regulate autoinducer production so that only some individuals produce these molecules. We have developed a theoretical model to address this question. In the model, the microbes shape their environment by producing autoinducers and can respond to this self-shaped environment by changing their level of autoinducer production. We found that this establishes a feedback loop that can result in autoinducers being produced by some individuals but not others.
The next step following on from this work is to carry out experiments to test the assumptions and predictions made by the theoretical model. These findings may help to understand how the coexistence of different phenotypes affects collective behaviors, and vice versa, in populations of microbes that use quorum sensing.