Secreting and sensing the same molecule allows cells to achieve versatile social behaviors.
Cells that secrete and sense the same signaling molecule are ubiquitous. To uncover the functional capabilities of the core “secrete-and-sense” circuit motif shared by these cells, we engineered yeast to secrete and sense the mating pheromone. Perturbing each circuit element revealed parameters that control the degree to which the cell communicated with itself versus with its neighbors. This tunable interplay of self-communication and neighbor communication enables cells to span a diverse repertoire of cellular behaviors. These include a cell being asocial by responding only to itself and social through quorum sensing, and an isogenic population of cells splitting into social and asocial subpopulations. A mathematical model explained these behaviors. The versatility of the secrete-and-sense circuit motif may explain its recurrence across species.