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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Sep 1;106(35):14861-6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0907542106. Epub 2009 Aug 17.

Bacterial growth and motility in sub-micron constrictions.

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Kavli Institute of Nanoscience, Delft University of Technology, Lorentzweg 1, 2628 CJ, Delft, The Netherlands.


In many naturally occurring habitats, bacteria live in micrometer-size confined spaces. Although bacterial growth and motility in such constrictions is of great interest to fields as varied as soil microbiology, water purification, and biomedical research, quantitative studies of the effects of confinement on bacteria have been limited. Here, we establish how Gram-negative Escherichia coli and Gram-positive Bacillus subtilis bacteria can grow, move, and penetrate very narrow constrictions with a size comparable to or even smaller than their diameter. We show that peritrichously flagellated E. coli and B. subtilis are still motile in microfabricated channels where the width of the channel exceeds their diameters only marginally (approximately 30%). For smaller widths, the motility vanishes but bacteria can still pass through these channels by growth and division. We observe E. coli, but not B. subtilis, to penetrate channels with a width that is smaller than their diameter by a factor of approximately 2. Within these channels, bacteria are considerably squeezed but they still grow and divide. After exiting the channels, E. coli bacteria obtain a variety of anomalous cell shapes. Our results reveal that sub-micron size pores and cavities are unexpectedly prolific bacterial habitats where bacteria exhibit morphological adaptations.

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