Bacteria-host communication: The language of hormones

Vanessa Sperandio, Alfredo G. Torres, Bruce Jarvis, James P. Nataro, James B. Kaper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

627 Scopus citations


The interbacterial communication system known as quorum sensing (QS) utilizes hormone-like compounds referred to as autoinducers to regulate bacterial gene expression. Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) serotype O157:H7 is the agent responsible for outbreaks of bloody diarrhea in several countries. We previously proposed that EHEC uses a QS regulatory system to "sense" that it is within the intestine and activate genes essential for intestinal colonization. The QS system used by EHEC is the LuxS/autoinducer 2 (Al-2) system extensively involved in interspecies communication. The autoinducer Al-2 is a furanosyl borate diester whose synthesis depends on the enzyme LuxS. Here we show that an EHEC luxS mutant, unable to produce the bacterial autoinducer, still responds to a eukaryotic cell signal to activate expression of its virulence genes. We have identified this signal as the hormone epinephrine and show that β- and α-adrenergic antagonists can block the bacterial response to this hormone. Furthermore, using purified and in vitro synthesized Al-2 we showed that Al-2 is not the autoinducer involved in the bacterial signaling. EHEC produces another, previously undescribed autoinducer (Al-3) whose synthesis depends on the presence of LuxS. These results imply a potential cross-communication between the luxS/Al-3 bacterial QS system and the epinephrine host signaling system. Given that eukaryotic cell-to-cell signaling typically occurs through hormones, and that bacterial cell-to-cell signaling occurs through QS, we speculate that QS might be a "language" by which bacteria and host cells communicate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8951-8956
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number15
StatePublished - Jul 22 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli
  • Epinephrine
  • Quorum sensing
  • Type III secretion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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