Bacterial cooperation underlies many bacterial traits of practical interest. Many social traits of bacteria are regulated by inter-cellular signalling pathways, generally known as quorum sensing (QS). QS has been proposed as novel target for anti-virulence treatment. To this aim, there is a need to better understand the mechanisms of QS and their social and evolutionary impact.
While the basic schemes of a single quorum sensing pathway acting in homogenous conditions are well understood, the system’s level function of QS regulatory networks can only be appreciated by considering the role phenotypic and genetic variability has on shaping the network’s structure and function. Phenotypic variability in complex communities may arise from division of labour between cells and environmental gradients and substantially impact the way cells secrete and interpret QS signals. Genetic variability in QS networks may lead to multiple social relations between cells of different genotypes including cross-talks, interception, manipulation and quenching of signals. This will affect the population structure and performance.
The proposed project will study the function of QS signalling in heterogeneous communities. Phenotypic variability and its impact on QS function will be studied in a spatially inhomogeneous cooperating system. Genetic variability will be studied at the macro and micro-scales in a bacterial species showing rapid diversification of their QS networks. Finally, we will rationally design strains with superior ‘cheating’ strategies that can invade and eliminate a cooperative population.
Throughout this project, we will use a combination of experimental techniques from microbiology, socio-biology, genetics and microscopy together with mathematical analysis tools from systems biology, population genetics and game theory, to study bacterial cooperation and its dependence on the underlying communication network, social complexity and environmental variation.
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