Hydration-controlled bacterial motility and dispersal on surfaces

Arnaud Dechesne, G. Wang, Gamze Gulez, D. Or, Barth F. Smets

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Flagellar motility, a mode of active motion shared by many prokaryotic species, is recognized as a key mechanism enabling population dispersal and resource acquisition in microbial communities living in marine, freshwater, and other liquid-replete habitats. By contrast, its role in variably hydrated habitats, where water dynamics result in fragmented aquatic habitats connected by micrometric films, is debated. Here, we quantify the spatial dynamics of Pseudomonas putida KT2440 and its nonflagellated isogenic mutant as affected by the hydration status of a rough porous surface using an experimental system that mimics aquatic habitats found in unsaturated soils. The flagellar motility of the model soil bacterium decreased sharply within a small range of water potential (0 to −2 kPa) and nearly ceased in liquid films of effective thickness smaller than 1.5 μm. However, bacteria could rapidly resume motility in response to periodic increases in hydration. We propose a biophysical model that captures key effects of hydration and liquid-film thickness on individual cell velocity and use a simple roughness network model to simulate colony expansion. Model predictions match experimental results reasonably well, highlighting the role of viscous and capillary pinning forces in hindering flagellar motility. Although flagellar motility seems to be restricted to a narrow range of very wet conditions, fitness gains conferred by fast surface colonization during transient favorable periods might offset the costs associated with flagella synthesis and explain the sustained presence of flagellated prokaryotes in partially saturated habitats such as soil surfaces.
Original languageEnglish
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number32
Pages (from-to)14369-14372
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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