Social conflict drives the evolutionary divergence of quorum sensing

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In microbial "quorum sensing" (QS) communication systems, microbes produce and respond to a signaling molecule, enabling a cooperative response at high cell densities. Many species of bacteria show fast, intraspecific, evolutionary divergence of their QS pathway specificity - signaling molecules activate cognate receptors in the same strain but fail to activate, and sometimes inhibit, those of other strains. Despite many molecular studies, it has remained unclear how a signaling molecule and receptor can coevolve, what maintains diversity, and what drives the evolution of cross-inhibition. Here I use mathematical analysis to show that when QS controls the production of extracellular enzymes - "public goods" - diversification can readily evolve. Coevolution is positively selected by cycles of alternating "cheating" receptor mutations and "cheating immunity" signaling mutations. The maintenance of diversity and the evolution of cross-inhibition between strains are facilitated by facultative cheating between the competing strains. My results suggest a role for complex social strategies in the long-term evolution of QS systems. More generally, my model of QS divergence suggests a form of kin recognition where different kin types coexist in unstructured populations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13635-13640
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number33
StatePublished - 16 Aug 2011


  • Bacterial communication
  • Diversifying selection
  • Microbiology
  • Sociobiology

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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