Bacteria push the limits of chemotactic precision to navigate dynamic chemical gradients

Douglas R. Brumley, Francesco Carrara, Andrew M. Hein, Yutaka Yawata, Simon Asher Levin, Roman Stocker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Ephemeral aggregations of bacteria are ubiquitous in the environment, where they serve as hotbeds of metabolic activity, nutrient cycling, and horizontal gene transfer. In many cases, these regions of high bacterial concentration are thought to form when motile cells use chemotaxis to navigate to chemical hotspots. However, what governs the dynamics of bacterial aggregations is unclear. Here, we use an experimental platform to create realistic submillimeter-scale nutrient pulses with controlled nutrient concentrations. By combining experiments, mathematical theory, and agent-based simulations, we show that individual Vibrio ordalii bacteria begin chemotaxis toward hotspots of dissolved organic matter (DOM) when the magnitude of the chemical gradient rises sufficiently far above the sensory noise that is generated by stochastic encounters with chemoattractant molecules. Each DOM hotspot is surrounded by a dynamic ring of chemotaxing cells, which congregate in regions of highDOMconcentration before dispersing as DOM diffuses and gradients become too noisy for cells to respond to. We demonstrate that V. ordalii operates close to the theoretical limits on chemotactic precision. Numerical simulations of chemotactic bacteria, in which molecule counting noise is explicitly taken into account, point at a tradeoff between nutrient acquisition and the cost of chemotactic precision. More generally, our results illustrate how limits on sensory precision can be used to understand the location, spatial extent, and lifespan of bacterial behavioral responses in ecologically relevant environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10792-10797
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number22
StatePublished - 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Chemotaxis
  • Microbial ecology
  • Motility
  • Ocean
  • Sensing noise


Dive into the research topics of 'Bacteria push the limits of chemotactic precision to navigate dynamic chemical gradients'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this