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Advances in computational biology allow systematic investigations to ascertain whether internal chemical gradients can be maintained in bacteria – an open question at the resolution limit of fluorescence microscopy. While it was previously believed that the small bacterial cell size and fast diffusion in the cytoplasm effectively remove any such gradient, a new computational study published in BMC Biophysics supports the emerging view that gradients can exist. The study arose from the recent observation that phosphorylated CtrA forms a gradient prior to cell division in Caulobacter crescentus, a bacterium known for its complicated cell cycle. Tropini et al. (2012) postulate that such gradients can provide an internal chemical compass, directing protein localization, cell division and cell development. More specifically, they describe biochemical and physical constraints on the formation of such gradients and explore a number of existing bacterial cell morphologies. These chemical gradients may limit in vitro analyses, and may ensure timing control and robustness to fluctuations during critical stages in cell development.