Bacteria use a language of low molecular weight ligands to assess their population densities in a process called quorum sensing. This chemical signaling process plays a pivotal role both in the pathogenesis of infectious disease and in beneficial symbioses. There is intense interest in the development of synthetic ligands that can intercept quorum-sensing signals and attenuate these divergent outcomes. Both broad-spectrum and species-selective modulators of quorum sensing hold significant value as small-molecule tools for fundamental studies of this complex cell-cell signaling process and for future biomedical and environmental applications. Here, we report the design and synthesis of focused collections of non-native N-acylated homoserine lactones and the systematic evaluation of these approximately 90 ligands across three Gram-negative bacterial species: the pathogens Agrobacterium tumefaciens and Pseudomonas aeruginosa; the model symbiont Vibrio fischeri. This study is the first to report and compare the activities of a set of ligands across multiple species and has revealed some of the most potent synthetic modulators of quorum sensing to date. Moreover, several of these ligands exhibit agonistic or antagonistic activity in all three species, while other ligands are only active in one or two species. Analysis of the screening data revealed that at least a subset of these ligands modulate quorum sensing via a partial agonism mechanism. We also demonstrate that selected ligands can either inhibit or promote the production of elastase B, a key virulence factor in wild-type P. aeruginosa, depending on their concentrations. Overall, this work provides broad insights into the molecular features required for small-molecule inhibition or activation of quorum sensing in Gram-negative bacteria. In addition, this study has supplied an expansive set of chemical tools for the further investigation of quorum-sensing pathways and responses.
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