Emergent robustness of bacterial quorum sensing in fluid flow
Bacteria use intercellular signalling, or quorum sensing (QS), to share information and respond collectively to aspects of their surroundings. The autoinducers that carry this information are exposed to the external environment. Consequently, they are affected by factors such as removal through fluid flow, a ubiquitous feature of bacterial habitats ranging from the gut and lungs to lakes and oceans.
We develop and apply a general theory that identifies and quantifies the conditions required for QS activation in fluid flow by systematically linking cell- and population-level genetic and physical processes. We predict that cell-level positive feedback promotes a robust collective response, and can act as a low-pass filter at the population level in oscillatory flow, responding only to changes over slow enough timescales. Moreover, we use our model to hypothesize how bacterial populations can discern between increases in cell density and decreases in flow rate.