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PLoS Biol. 2007 Oct 30;5(11):e302.

Self-organization in high-density bacterial colonies: efficient crowd control.

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Department of Biomedical Engineering, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, United States of America.


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.

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