Evidence for biosurfactant-induced flow in corners and bacterial spreading in unsaturated porous media

Judy Q. Yang, Joseph E. Sanfilippo, Niki Abbasi, Zemer Gitai, Bonnie L. Bassler, Howard A. Stone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

The spread of pathogenic bacteria in unsaturated porous media, where air and liquid coexist in pore spaces, is the major cause of soil contamination by pathogens, soft rot in plants, food spoilage, and many pulmonary diseases. However, visualization and fundamental understanding of bacterial transport in unsaturated porous media are currently lacking, limiting the ability to address the above contamination- and disease-related issues. Here, we demonstrate a previously unreported mechanism by which bacterial cells are transported in unsaturated porous media. We discover that surfactant-producing bacteria can generate flows along corners through surfactant production that changes the wettability of the solid surface. The corner flow velocity is on the order of several millimeters per hour, which is the same order of magnitude as bacterial swarming, one of the fastest known modes of bacterial surface translocation. We successfully predict the critical corner angle for bacterial corner flow to occur based on the biosurfactant-induced change in the contact angle of the bacterial solution on the solid surface. Furthermore, we demonstrate that bacteria can indeed spread by producing biosurfactants in a model soil, which consists of packed angular grains. In addition, we demonstrate that bacterial corner flow is controlled by quorum sensing, the cell–cell communication process that regulates biosurfactant production. Understanding this previously unappreciated bacterial transport mechanism will enable more accurate predictions of bacterial spreading in soil and other unsaturated porous media.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2111060118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume118
Issue number38
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 21 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General

Keywords

  • Bacterial spreading
  • Biosurfactant
  • Corner flow
  • Unsaturated porous media
  • Wettability

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