Emergence of Escherichia coli critically buckled motile helices under stress

Trung V. Phan, Ryan J. Morris, Ho Tat Lam, Phuson Hulamm, Matthew E. Black, Julia Bos, Robert H. Austin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Bacteria under external stress can reveal unexpected emergent phenotypes. We show that the intensely studied bacterium Escherichia coli can transform into long, highly motile helical filaments poized at a torsional buckling criticality when exposed to minimum inhibitory concentrations of several antibiotics. While the highly motile helices are physically either right- or left-handed, the motile helices always rotate with a right-handed angular velocity ω~, which points in the same direction as the translational velocity ~v T of the helix. Furthermore, these helical cells do not swim by a “run and tumble” but rather synchronously flip their spin ω~ and thus translational velocity—backing up rather than tumbling. By increasing the translational persistence length, these dynamics give rise to an effective diffusion coefficient up to 20 times that of a normal E. coli cell. Finally, we propose an evolutionary mechanism for this phenotype’s emergence whereby the increased effective diffusivity provides a fitness advantage in allowing filamentous cells to more readily escape regions of high external stress.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)12979-12984
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number51
StatePublished - Dec 18 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Bacteria
  • Buckled
  • Emergent
  • Helical
  • Motile


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