Chemotactic migration of bacteria—their ability to direct multicellular motion along chemical gradients—is central to processes in agriculture, the environment, and medicine. However, current understanding of migration is based on studies performed in bulk liquid, despite the fact that many bacteria inhabit tight porous media such as soils, sediments, and biological gels. Here, we directly visualize the chemotactic migration of Escherichia coli populations in well-defined 3D porous media in the absence of any other imposed external forcing (e.g., flow). We find that pore-scale confinement is a strong regulator of migration. Strikingly, cells use a different primary mechanism to direct their motion in confinement than in bulk liquid. Furthermore, confinement markedly alters the dynamics and morphology of the migrating population—features that can be described by a continuum model, but only when standard motility parameters are substantially altered from their bulk liquid values to reflect the influence of pore-scale confinement. Our work thus provides a framework to predict and control the migration of bacteria, and active matter in general, in complex environments.
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