Gathering and sharing of information is extremely important in human society. Especially in times of war, the difference between victory and defeat can depend on the ability to obtain, encrypt, and share information, and sophisticated systems have been developed for exactly this purpose. Similarly, in their constant battles with competitors and the host immune system, (opportunistic) microbial pathogens have developed sophisticated cell–cell communication systems termed quorum sensing (QS) that allow exchange of critical information. In return, competing microbes, as well as the host immune system, have developed means to intercept and decode these messages. The information obtained by this molecular espionage is used for their benefit, either to win the war (microbe against microbe), or to prepare for an upcoming battle (microbe against immune system).
QS is a system that enables microbes to monitor population cell density through the production, secretion, and sensing of small diffusible molecules. When such molecules reach a threshold concentration, microbial cells in the vicinity detect the signal and coordinately respond by modifying their gene expression; often these genes are associated with virulence and pathogenesis. Several different types of QS molecules have been described for a wide variety of microbial species.
To illustrate the clinical importance of this microbial spy game, this short review focuses on the biological activity of a single bacterial QS molecule on surrounding microbes and the host immune system and its diverse “meaning” to different receivers. Infections related to burn wounds, cystic fibrosis, and periodontal diseases consist most commonly of the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus and the fungus Candida albicans, and represent niches with an active host response. This short review provides five facts about how the P. aeruginosa QS molecule plays a pivotal role in this triangle of interspecies interactions and how microbial behavior elicited by this small signalling molecule has consequences for the host response.