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Overcoming obstacles: a collective microbial solution to a shared problem

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Christoph Schran.

Bacterial biofilms are the most pervasive life form on the planet having adapted to a wide range of living conditions. While invading new territory in the wild, biofilms periodically encounter barriers, including populations of other bacteria that can be so densely packed to completely halt the forward motion of individual cells. How do biofilms overcome such a challenge?

Using time-lapse microscopy on expanding biofilms of B. subtilis crashing against populations of E. coli of variable density and width, we find that the biofilm population exhibits different collective strategies to bypass the barrier on its path, often requiring coordination of cell behaviour across thousands of cells. In particular, while rafts of swarming cells are sufficient to break through thin barriers, denser barriers trigger a “vascularization” process during which some cells create channels that slowly penetrate the barrier. Interestingly, a similar process is observed also as the biofilm grows in isolation and creates radial “wrinkles”. While these wrinkles have so far been thought to originate from critical stress that builds within the biofilm because of growth, we have found experimentally that wrinkle propagation requires cell motility. Molecular dynamics simulations of mixtures of active and passive particles are able to partially recapitulate the observed behaviour, but also show clear limitations that suggest a subtle coordination between cell motility and adhesion during biofilm development.

This talk is part of the Lennard-Jones Centre series.

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