Letter

Nature 450, 411-414 (15 November 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature06279; Received 29 June 2007; Accepted 18 September 2007

Cooperation and conflict in quorum-sensing bacterial populations

Stephen P. Diggle1, Ashleigh S. Griffin2, Genevieve S. Campbell1 & Stuart A. West2

  1. Institute of Infection, Immunity & Inflammation, Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, University Park, University of Nottingham, Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK
  2. Institute of Evolutionary Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh, King's Buildings, Edinburgh EH9 3JT, UK

Correspondence to: Stephen P. Diggle1Stuart A. West2 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to S.P.D. (Email: steve.diggle@nottingham.ac.uk) or S.A.W. (Email: stu.west@ed.ac.uk).

It has been suggested that bacterial cells communicate by releasing and sensing small diffusible signal molecules in a process commonly known as quorum sensing (QS)1, 2, 3, 4. It is generally assumed that QS is used to coordinate cooperative behaviours at the population level3, 5. However, evolutionary theory predicts that individuals who communicate and cooperate can be exploited6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Here we examine the social evolution of QS experimentally in the opportunistic pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and show that although QS can provide a benefit at the group level, exploitative individuals can avoid the cost of producing the QS signal or of performing the cooperative behaviour that is coordinated by QS, and can therefore spread. We also show that a solution to the problem of exploitation is kin selection, if interacting bacterial cells tend to be close relatives. These results show that the problem of exploitation, which has been the focus of considerable attention in animal communication, also arises in bacteria.

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