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Morphogenesis and cell ordering in confined bacterial biofilms

Morphogenesis and cell ordering in confined bacterial #biofilms.

Study shows that the confining environment determines the dynamics of #biofilm shape & internal structure.

Significance Biofilms are microbial cities in which bacterial cells reside in a polymeric matrix. They are commonly found inside soft confining environments such as food matrices and host tissues, against which bacteria must push to proliferate. Here, by combining single-cell live imaging and mechanical characterization, we show that the confining environment determines the dynamics of biofilm shape and internal structure. The self-organization of biofilm architecture is caused by force transmission between the environment and the biofilm, mediated by the extracellular matrix secreted by the cells. Our findings lead to a better understanding of how bacterial communities develop under mechanical constraints, and potentially to strategies for preventing and controlling biofilm growth in three-dimensional environments.

Abstract Biofilms are aggregates of bacterial cells surrounded by an extracellular matrix. Much progress has been made in studying biofilm growth on solid substrates; however, little is known about the biophysical mechanisms underlying biofilm development in three-dimensional confined environments in which the biofilm-dwelling cells must push against and even damage the surrounding environment to proliferate. Here, combining single-cell imaging, mutagenesis, and rheological measurement, we reveal the key morphogenesis steps of Vibrio cholerae biofilms embedded in hydrogels as they grow by four orders of magnitude from their initial size. We show that the morphodynamics and cell ordering in embedded biofilms are fundamentally different from those of biofilms on flat surfaces. Treating embedded biofilms as inclusions growing in an elastic medium, we quantitatively show that the stiffness contrast between the biofilm and its environment determines biofilm morphology and internal architecture, selecting between spherical biofilms with no cell ordering and oblate ellipsoidal biofilms with high cell ordering. When embedded in stiff gels, cells self-organize into a bipolar structure that resembles the molecular ordering in nematic liquid crystal droplets. In vitro biomechanical analysis shows that cell ordering arises from stress transmission across the biofilm–environment interface, mediated by specific matrix components. Our imaging technique and theoretical approach are generalizable to other biofilm-forming species and potentially to biofilms embedded in mucus or host tissues as during infection. Our results open an avenue to understand how confined cell communities grow by means of a compromise between their inherent developmental program and the mechanical constraints imposed by the environment.

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