Research Article

Cell position fates and collective fountain flow in bacterial biofilms revealed by light-sheet microscopy

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Science  03 Jul 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6499, pp. 71-77
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb8501

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Biofilm formation from cell fountains

Bacteria form three-dimensional communities called biofilms that are ubiquitous in nature and underlie human infections. Medically, biofilms are problematic because they protect resident cells from antibiotics. Although biofilms have been intensively studied, we do not understand how they develop cell by cell. Micron-sized bacteria are densely packed within biofilms, making it exceptionally challenging to track their movements. Qin et al. studied biofilm formation in the pathogen and model biofilm former Vibrio cholerae (see the Perspective by Dal Co and Brenner). The authors combined light-sheet microscopy with cell labeling to map the trajectories of a biofilm founder cell and its descendants in space and time as they built a biofilm. The findings revealed that as the bacteria reproduce, a bacterial “fountain” drives biofilm expansion and dictates the final positions of the offspring.

Science, this issue p. 71; see also p. 30


Bacterial biofilms represent a basic form of multicellular organization that confers survival advantages to constituent cells. The sequential stages of cell ordering during biofilm development have been studied in the pathogen and model biofilm-former Vibrio cholerae. It is unknown how spatial trajectories of individual cells and the collective motions of many cells drive biofilm expansion. We developed dual-view light-sheet microscopy to investigate the dynamics of biofilm development from a founder cell to a mature three-dimensional community. Tracking of individual cells revealed two distinct fates: one set of biofilm cells expanded ballistically outward, while the other became trapped at the substrate. A collective fountain-like flow transported cells to the biofilm front, bypassing members trapped at the substrate and facilitating lateral biofilm expansion. This collective flow pattern was quantitatively captured by a continuum model of biofilm growth against substrate friction. Coordinated cell movement required the matrix protein RbmA, without which cells expanded erratically. Thus, tracking cell lineages and trajectories in space and time revealed how multicellular structures form from a single founder cell.

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