The intragenus and interspecies quorum-sensing autoinducers exert distinct control over Vibrio cholerae biofilm formation and dispersal.
Vibrio cholerae possesses multiple quorum-sensing (QS) systems that control virulence and biofilm formation among other traits. At low cell densities, when QS autoinducers are absent, V. cholerae forms biofilms. At high cell densities, when autoinducers have accumulated, biofilm formation is repressed, and dispersal occurs. Here, we focus on the roles of two well-characterized QS autoinducers that function in parallel. One autoinducer, called cholerae autoinducer-1 (CAI-1), is used to measure Vibrio abundance, and the other autoinducer, called autoinducer-2 (AI-2), is widely produced by different bacterial species and presumed to enable V. cholerae to assess the total bacterial cell density of the vicinal community. The two V. cholerae autoinducers funnel information into a shared signal relay pathway. This feature of the QS system architecture has made it difficult to understand how specific information can be extracted from each autoinducer, how the autoinducers might drive distinct output behaviors, and, in turn, how the bacteria use QS to distinguish kin from nonkin in bacterial communities. We develop a live-cell biofilm formation and dispersal assay that allows examination of the individual and combined roles of the two autoinducers in controlling V. cholerae behavior. We show that the QS system works as a coincidence detector in which both autoinducers must be present simultaneously for repression of biofilm formation to occur. Within that context, the CAI-1 QS pathway is activated when only a few V. cholerae cells are present, whereas the AI-2 pathway is activated only at much higher cell density. The consequence of this asymmetry is that exogenous sources of AI-2, but not CAI-1, contribute to satisfying the coincidence detector to repress biofilm formation and promote dispersal. We propose that V. cholerae uses CAI-1 to verify that some of its kin are present before committing to the high-cell-density QS mode, but it is, in fact, the broadly made autoinducer AI-2 that sets the pace of the V. cholerae QS program. This first report of unique roles for the different V. cholerae autoinducers suggests that detection of kin fosters a distinct outcome from detection of nonkin.