Scientific reports

Cell morphology governs directional control in swimming bacteria.

PMID 28515428


The ability to rapidly detect and track nutrient gradients is key to the ecological success of motile bacteria in aquatic systems. Consequently, bacteria have evolved a number of chemotactic strategies that consist of sequences of straight runs and reorientations. Theoretically, both phases are affected by fluid drag and Brownian motion, which are themselves governed by cell geometry. Here, we experimentally explore the effect of cell length on control of swimming direction. We subjected Escherichia coli to an antibiotic to obtain motile cells of different lengths, and characterized their swimming patterns in a homogeneous medium. As cells elongated, angles between runs became smaller, forcing a change from a run-and-tumble to a run-and-stop/reverse pattern. Our results show that changes in the motility pattern of microorganisms can be induced by simple morphological variation, and raise the possibility that changes in swimming pattern may be triggered by both morphological plasticity and selection on morphology.