How bacteria can draw flowers

Interactions between motile and non-motile bacteria of different species give rise to flower-like patterns.
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Flower pattern formed by a growing colony of Acinetobacter baylyi (red) and Escherichia coli (green). Image credit: Lyang Xiong (CC BY 4.0)

Communities of bacteria and other microbes live in every ecosystem on Earth, including in soil, in hydrothermal vents, on the surface of plants and in the human gut. They often attach to solid surfaces and form dense colonies called biofilms. Most biofilms found in nature are comprised of many different species of bacteria. How the bacteria interact shapes the internal structures of these communities.

Many previous studies have focused on the molecules that bacteria use to relate to each other, for example, some bacteria exchange nutrients or release toxins that are harmful to their neighbors. However, it is less clear how direct physical contacts between bacteria affect the whole community.

Escherichia coli is a rod-shaped bacterium that is a good swimmer, but has a hard time moving on solid surfaces. Therefore, when a droplet of liquid containing these bacteria is placed in a Petri dish containing a jelly-like substance called agar, the droplet barely expands over a 24-hour period. On the other hand, a droplet containing another rod-shaped bacterium known as Acinetobacter baylyi expands rapidly on agar because these bacteria are able to crawl using microscopic “legs” called pili.

Here, Xiong et al. set out to investigate how a colony containing both E. coli and A. baylyi developed on a solid surface. The experiments showed that when a droplet of liquid containing both species was placed on agar, both species grew and spread rapidly, as if the E. coli hitchhiked on the highly motile A. baylyi cells. Furthermore, the growing colony developed a complex flower-like shape. Xiong et al. developed mathematical models that took into account how quickly each species generally grows, their ability to move, the friction between cells and the agar, and other physical properties. The models predicted that the E. coli cells that accumulate at the expanding boundary of the colony make the boundary unstable, leading to the flower-like patterns.

Further analysis suggested that similar patterns may form in other situations when motile and non-motile species of bacteria are together. These findings may help us understand the origins of the complex structures observed in many naturally occurring communities of bacteria.