Colonies of bacterial cells can display complex collective dynamics, frequently culminating in the formation of biofilms and other ordered super-structures. Recent studies suggest that to cope with local environmental challenges, bacterial cells can actively seek out small chambers or cavities and assemble there, engaging in quorum sensing behavior. By using a novel microfluidic device, we showed that within chambers of distinct shapes and sizes allowing continuous cell escape, bacterial colonies can gradually self-organize. The directions of orientation of cells, their growth, and collective motion are mutually correlated and dictated by the chamber walls and locations of chamber exits. The ultimate highly organized steady state is conducive to a more-organized escape of cells from the chambers and increased access of nutrients into and evacuation of waste out of the colonies. Using a computational model, we suggest that the lengths of the cells might be optimized to maximize self-organization while minimizing the potential for stampede-like exit blockage. The self-organization described here may be crucial for the early stage of the organization of high-density bacterial colonies populating small, physically confined growth niches. It suggests that this phenomenon can play a critical role in bacterial biofilm initiation and development of other complex multicellular bacterial super-structures, including those implicated in infectious diseases.
Bacterial cells form colonies with complex organization (aka biofilms), particularly in response to hostile environmental conditions. Recent studies have shown that biofilm development occurs when bacterial cells seek out small cavities and populate them at high densities. However, bacteria in cavities may suffer from poor nutrient supply or waste removal, or disorganized expansion leading to blockage of cell escape. In this study, we observed Escherichia coli in a microfluidic device that allows direct observation of the growth and development of cell colonies in microchambers of different shapes and sizes through multiple generations. Combining this experimentation with computational analysis of colony growth and expansion, we characterize a process of colony self-organization that results in a high degree of correlation between the directions of cell orientation and growth of collective cell movement. We also find that this self-organization can significantly facilitate efficient escape of cells from the confines of cavities where they reside, while improving the access of nutrients into the colony interior. Finally, we suggest that the aspect ratio of the shape of E. coli and other similar bacteria might be generally subject to a constraint related to colony self-organization.
In nature, bacteria often found themselves in high-density colonies. The combination of a novel microfluidic device and computational analysis reveals an unexpected self-organization behavior of tightly packed bacterial cells.