Community Matters

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Science  30 Nov 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6111, pp. 1129
DOI: 10.1126/science.338.6111.1129-b

We often think of bacteria as quintessentially single-celled organisms, finely tuned to survive as rugged individualists. For many prokaryotic species, this would be a mistaken impression. Quorum sensing (QS), a system of communication between cells related to population density, regulates a number of coordinated activities, including biofilm formation, swarming motility, and bioluminescence. Now Goo et al. show that, unlike the wild type, Burkholderia species deficient in QS showed massive die-off in the stationary phase of growth. Bacteria that metabolize amino acids as a carbon source release ammonia and increase the alkalinity of their environment, and this rise in pH killed the QS-deficient bacteria. The wild-type Burkholderia species maintained a lower environmental pH through the production and secretion of oxalate, a small acidic compound, and could thus survive the stationary phase. The production of oxalate—a so-called “public good” of benefit to all in the population—was activated through the QS system, indicating that the bacteria can sense their population density and, just before the stationary phase, cooperate to neutralize a toxic byproduct of their energy metabolism.

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 10.1073/pnas.1218092109 (2012).

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