Chemotaxis in Bacteria

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Science  12 Aug 1966:
Vol. 153, Issue 3737, pp. 708-716
DOI: 10.1126/science.153.3737.708


Motile Escherichia coli placed at one end of a capillary tube containing an energy source and oxygen migrate out into the tube in one or two bands, which are clearly visible to the naked eye and can also be demonstrated by photography, microscopy, and densitometry and by assaying for bacteria throughout the tube. The formation of two bands is not due to heterogeneity among the bacteria, since the bacteria in each band, when reused, will form two more bands.

If an anaerobically utilizable energy source such as galactose is present in excess over the oxygen, the first band consumes all the oxygen and a part of the sugar and the second band uses the residual sugar anaerobically. On the other hand, if oxygen is present in excess over the sugar, the first band oxidizes all the sugar and leaves behind unused oxygen, and the second band uses up the residual oxygen to oxidize an endogenous energy source.

The essence of the matter is that the bacteria create a gradient of oxygen or of an energy source, and then they move preferentially in the direction of the higher concentration of the chemical. As a consequence, bands of bacteria (or rings of bacteria in the case of agar plates) form and move out. These results show that E. coli is chemotactic toward oxygen and energy sources such as galactose, glucose, aspartic acid, threonine, or serine. The full repertoire of chemotactic responses by E. coli is no doubt greater than this, and a more complete list remains to be compiled.

The studies reported here demonstrate that chemotaxis allows bacteria to find that environment which provides them with the greatest supply of energy. It is clearly an advantage for bacteria to be able to carry out chemotaxis, since by this means they can avoid unfavorable conditions and seek optimum surroundings.

Finally, it is necessary to acknowledge the pioneering work of Englemann, Pfeffer, and the other late-19thcentury biologists who discovered chemotaxis in bacteria, and to point out that the studies reported here fully confirm the earlier reports of Beijerinck (4) and Sherris and his collaborators (5,6) on a band of bacteria chemotactic toward oxygen. By using a chemically defined medium instead of a complex broth, it has been possible to study this band more closely and to demonstrate in addition the occurrence of a second band of bacteria chemotactic toward an energy source. Beijerinck (4) did, in fact, sometimes observe a second band, but he did not offer an explanation for it.

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