Quorum sensing dynamics in the alpha-proteobacterium Sinorhizobium meliloti at the single-cell and population level
In quorum sensing, bacteria produce and release so-called autoinducers that accumulate in the environment while the cells grow. Once these molecules reach a threshold concentration, they trigger major behavioral changes in the population. Since the triggered behaviors are thought to be effective onl...
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|Summary:||In quorum sensing, bacteria produce and release so-called autoinducers that accumulate in the environment while the cells grow. Once these molecules reach a threshold concentration, they trigger major behavioral changes in the population. Since the triggered behaviors are thought to be effective only when performed by a large enough group, autoinducers are generally taken to indicate when this sufficient cell density has been reached. However, little is known about how these components interact dynamically at the single-cell level to fulfill their task of cell-cell communication. Furthermore, quorum sensing is often studied in well-shaken liquid cultures, but little is known about autoinducer dispersal and response dynamics over larger distances in physiological niches like the rhizosphere where active mixing is negligible. The aim of this work therefore was to investigate these aspects in the model organism Sinorhizobium meliloti.
In (Bettenworth et al., 2022.), quorum sensing dynamics were investigated with respect to autoinducer synthase gene expression in single cells and the timing of the response in the respective colonies. Surprisingly, in S. meliloti the autoinducer synthase gene is not expressed continuously, but in discrete stochastic pulses. Stochasticity stems from scarcity and, presumably, low binding affinity of the essential transcription activator. Physiological factors modulate abundance of this activator or its binding affinity to the autoinducer synthase gene promoter and thereby modulate gene expression pulse frequency. Higher or lower pulse frequencies in turn trigger the onset of the quorum sensing response at lower or higher cell numbers, respectively. In other words: S. meliloti quorum sensing is based on a stochastic regulatory system that encodes each cell’s physiological condition in the pulse frequency with which it expresses its autoinducer synthase gene; pulse frequencies of all members of a population are then integrated in the common pool of autoinducers. Only once this vote crosses the threshold, the response behavior is initiated. Consequently, S. meliloti quorum sensing is not so much a matter of counting cell numbers as suggested by the analogy of the quorum, but more comparable to a voting in a local community, or the collective decision-making described for social insects (Bettenworth et al., 2022).
In (Bettenworth et al., 2018), the dynamics of autoinducer dispersal by diffusion in a two-dimensional environment were explored. At first sight, diffusive spreading should yield a dilution of the molecules and, with increasing distance from the source, slow down progression of the concentration level necessary to trigger a response in distantly located receiver cells. In contrast to this expectation, however, this threshold concentration did not decelerate in respective experiments, but instead travelled with constant speed, comparable to front propagation in pattern-forming systems. According to a mathematical model, this effect was due to the exponential growth of the sender cells which yielded adding-up of an exponentially growing number of autoinducer concentration profiles, thus compensating for the thinning effect of diffusion. Consequently, even a single sender colony could induce a response in receiver cells up to 7 mm away (Bettenworth et al., 2018).|
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