A Modular View of the Diversity of Cell-Density-Encoding Schemes in Bacterial Quorum-Sensing Systems
Certain environmental parameters are accessible to cells only indirectly and require an encoding step for cells to retrieve the relevant information. A prominent example is the phenomenon of quorum sensing by microorganisms, where information about cell density is encoded by means of secreted signaling molecules. The mapping of cell density to signal molecule concentration and the corresponding network modules involved have been at least partially characterized in many bacteria, and vary markedly between different systems. In this study, we investigate theoretically how differences in signal transport, signal modification, and site of signal detection shape the encoding function and affect the sensitivity and the noise characteristics of the cell-density-encoding process. We find that different modules are capable of implementing both fairly basic as well as more complex encoding schemes, whose qualitative characteristics vary with cell density and are linked to network architecture, providing the basis for a hierarchical classification scheme. We exploit the tight relationship between encoding behavior and network architecture to constrain the network topology of partially characterized natural systems, and verify one such prediction by showing experimentally that Vibrio harveyi is capable of importing Autoinducer 2. The framework developed in this research can serve not only to guide reverse engineering of natural systems but also to stimulate the design of synthetic systems and generally facilitate a better understanding of the complexities arising in the quorum-sensing process because of variations in the physical organization of the encoder network module.