Bacteria can use chemical signals to assess their local population density in a process called quorum sensing (QS). Many of these bacteria are common pathogens, including Gram-positive bacteria that utilize agr QS systems regulated by macrocyclic autoinducing peptide (AIP) signals. Listeria monocytogenes, an important foodborne pathogen, uses an agr system to regulate a variety of virulence factors and biofilm formation, yet little is known about the specific roles of agr in Listeria infection and its persistence in various environments. Herein, we report synthetic peptide tools that will enable the study of QS in Listeria. We identified a 6-mer AIP signal in L. monocytogenes supernatants and selected it as a scaffold around which a collection of non-native AIP mimics was designed and synthesized. These peptides were evaluated in cell-based agr reporter assays to generate structure-activity relationships for AIP-based agonism and antagonism in L. monocytogenes. We discovered synthetic agonists with increased potency relative to native AIP and a synthetic antagonist capable of reducing agr activity to basal levels. Notably, the latter peptide was able to reduce biofilm formation by over 90%, a first for a synthetic QS modulator in wild-type L. monocytogenes. The lead agr agonist and antagonist in L. monocytogenes were also capable of antagonizing agr signaling in the related pathogen Staphylococcus aureus, further extending their utility and suggesting different mechanisms of agr activation in these two pathogens. This study represents an important first step in the application of chemical methods to modulate QS and concomitant virulence outcomes in L. monocytogenes.
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