Density-Dependent Differentiation of Bacteria in Spatially Structured Open Systems.

TitleDensity-Dependent Differentiation of Bacteria in Spatially Structured Open Systems.
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsRibbe, J, Maier, B
JournalBiophys J
Date Published2016 Apr 12

Bacterial quorum sensing is usually studied in well-mixed populations residing within closed systems. The latter do not exchange mass with their surroundings; however, in their natural environment, such as the rhizosphere, bacteria live in spatially structured open systems. Here, we tested the hypothesis that trapping of bacteria within microscopic pockets of an open system triggers density-dependent differentiation. We designed a microfluidic device that trapped swimming bacteria within microscopic compartments. The geometry of the traps controlled their diffusive coupling to fluid flow that played a dual role as nutrient source and autoinducer sink. Bacillus subtilis differentiates into a state of competence in response to quorum sensing and nutrient limitation. Using a mutant strain with a high differentiation rate and fluorescent reporters for competence, we found that the cell density required for differentiation was 100-fold higher than that required in closed systems. A direct comparison of strongly and moderately coupled reservoirs showed that strong coupling supported early differentiation but required a higher number of bacteria for its initiation. Weak coupling resulted in retardation of growth and differentiation. We conclude that spatial heterogeneity can promote density-dependent differentiation in open systems, and propose that the minimal quorum is determined by diffusive coupling to the environment through a trade-off between retaining autoinducers and accessing nutrients.

Alternate JournalBiophys. J.