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PLoS Comput Biol. 2010 Mar 19;6(3):e1000717. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000717.

Predicted auxiliary navigation mechanism of peritrichously flagellated chemotactic bacteria.

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Interdisziplinäres Zentrum für Wissenschaftliches Rechnen (IWR) der Universität Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany.


Chemotactic movement of Escherichia coli is one of the most thoroughly studied paradigms of simple behavior. Due to significant competitive advantage conferred by chemotaxis and to high evolution rates in bacteria, the chemotaxis system is expected to be strongly optimized. Bacteria follow gradients by performing temporal comparisons of chemoeffector concentrations along their runs, a strategy which is most efficient given their size and swimming speed. Concentration differences are detected by a sensory system and transmitted to modulate rotation of flagellar motors, decreasing the probability of a tumble and reorientation if the perceived concentration change during a run is positive. Such regulation of tumble probability is of itself sufficient to explain chemotactic drift of a population up the gradient, and is commonly assumed to be the only navigation mechanism of chemotactic E. coli. Here we use computer simulations to predict existence of an additional mechanism of gradient navigation in E. coli. Based on the experimentally observed dependence of cell tumbling angle on the number of switching motors, we suggest that not only the tumbling probability but also the degree of reorientation during a tumble depend on the swimming direction along the gradient. Although the difference in mean tumbling angles up and down the gradient predicted by our model is small, it results in a dramatic enhancement of the cellular drift velocity along the gradient. We thus demonstrate a new level of optimization in E. coli chemotaxis, which arises from the switching of several flagellar motors and a resulting fine tuning of tumbling angle. Similar strategy is likely to be used by other peritrichously flagellated bacteria, and indicates yet another level of evolutionary development of bacterial chemotaxis.

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