A Symphony of Bacterial Voices

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Science  21 May 1999:
Vol. 284, Issue 5418, pp. 1302-1304
DOI: 10.1126/science.284.5418.1302

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Scientists have found that a wide variety of bacteria wait until they've gathered a crowd before taking some action. Called quorum sensing, this phenomenon depends on bacterial cells making, and then sensing, signals they can use to count their own numbers and those of other species as well. In some cases, quorum-sensing benefits not just the microbes but also the creatures they inhabit; in many other cases, however, the results render bacteria harmful to their hosts. As researchers tease out the molecular details of how bacteria sense and respond to their neighbors, they may learn how to foul up the counting systems of specific strains. This could lead to ways to thwart the ability of pathogenic bacteria to cause illness without generating side effects by wiping out indigenous flora, as current broad-spectrum antibiotics usually do.