Bacterial cells can produce and sense signal molecules, allowing the whole population to initiate a concerted action once a critical concentration (corresponding to a particular population density) of the signal has been reached, a phenomenon known as quorum sensing. One of the possible quorum sensing-regulated phenotypes is swarming, a flagella-driven movement of differentiated swarmer cells (hyperflagellated, elongated, multinucleated) by which bacteria can spread as a biofilm over a surface. The glycolipid or lipopeptide biosurfactants thereby produced function as wetting agent by reducing the surface tension. Quorum sensing systems are almost always integrated into other regulatory circuits. This effectively expands the range of environmental signals that influence target gene expression beyond population density. In this review, we first discuss the regulation of AHL-mediated surface migration and the involvement of other low-molecular-mass signal molecules (such as the furanosyl borate diester AI-2) in biosurfactant production of different bacteria. In addition, population density-dependent regulation of swarmer cell differentiation is reviewed. Also, several examples of interspecies signalling are reported. Different signal molecules either produced by bacteria (such as other AHLs and diketopiperazines) or excreted by plants (such as furanones, plant signal mimics) might influence the quorum sensing-regulated swarming behaviour in bacteria different from the producer. On the other hand, specific bacteria can reduce the local available concentration of signal molecules produced by others. In the last part, the role and regulation of a surface-associated movement in biofilm formation is discussed. Here we also describe how quorum sensing may disperse existing biofilms and control the interaction between bacteria and higher organisms (such as the Rhizobium-bean symbiosis). © 2003 Federation of European Microbiological Societies. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
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