Special Evolution Seminar: Alexander Petroff, Rockefeller University

January 13, 2014 - 10:00 AM


Alexander Petroff, Rockefeller University


Lynch Lecture Hall


Hydrodynamics and collective behavior of the tethered bacterium Thiovulum


The ecology and dynamics of many microbial systems, particularly in mats and soils, are shaped by how bacteria respond to evolving nutrient gradients and microenvironments. Here we show how the response of the sulfur-oxidizing bacterium Thiovulum majus to changing oxygen gradients cause cells to organize into large-scale fronts. To study this phenomenon, we develop a technique to isolate and enrich these bacteria from the environment. Using this enrichment culture, we observe the formation and dynamics of T. majus fronts in oxygen gradients. We show that these dynamics can be understood as occurring in two steps. First, chemotactic cells moving up the oxygen gradient form a front that propagates with constant velocity. We then show, through observation and mathematical analysis, that this front becomes unstable to changes in cell density. Random perturbations in cell density create oxygen gradients. The response of cells magnifies these gradients and leads to the formation of millimeter-scale fluid flows that actively pull oxygenated water through the front. We argue that this flow results from a nonlinear instability excited by stochastic fluctuations in the density of cells. Finally, we show that the dynamics by which these modes interact can be understood from the chemotactic response of cells. These results provide a mathematically tractable example of how collective phenomena in ecological systems can arise from the individual response of cells to a shared resource.

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