Coupling between distant biofilms and emergence of nutrient time-sharing

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Science  12 May 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6338, pp. 638-642
DOI: 10.1126/science.aah4204

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Maximizing growth by sharing

Bacterial colonies can undergo synchronized oscillations of cell growth, in which individual cells communicate through potassium ion-mediated electrical signals. Liu et al. found that such communication can also occur between adjacent colonies (see the Perspective by Gordon). Furthermore, colonies that would normally oscillate in synchrony adapted to an environment in which the nutrient supply was limited by growing out of phase with one another. Mathematical modeling and further experiments showed that this kept the colonies from having to compete for the limited nutrient and, counterintuitively, allowed the colonies to grow more quickly than they did with a higher nutrient concentration.

Science, this issue p. 638; see also p. 583


Bacteria within communities can interact to organize their behavior. It has been unclear whether such interactions can extend beyond a single community to coordinate the behavior of distant populations. We discovered that two Bacillus subtilis biofilm communities undergoing metabolic oscillations can become coupled through electrical signaling and synchronize their growth dynamics. Coupling increases competition by also synchronizing demand for limited nutrients. As predicted by mathematical modeling, we confirm that biofilms resolve this conflict by switching from in-phase to antiphase oscillations. This results in time-sharing behavior, where each community takes turns consuming nutrients. Time-sharing enables biofilms to counterintuitively increase growth under reduced nutrient supply. Distant biofilms can thus coordinate their behavior to resolve nutrient competition through time-sharing, a strategy used in engineered systems to allocate limited resources.

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