Nonuniform growth and surface friction determine bacterial biofilm morphology on soft substrates

Chenyi Fei, Sheng Mao, Jing Yan, Ricard Alert, Howard A. Stone, Bonnie L. Bassler, Ned S. Wingreen, Andrej Košmrlj

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

70 Scopus citations


During development, organisms acquire three-dimensional (3D) shapes with important physiological consequences. While basic mechanisms underlying morphogenesis are known in eukaryotes, it is often difficult to manipulate them in vivo. To circumvent this issue, here we present a study of developing Vibrio cholerae biofilms grown on agar substrates in which the spatiotemporal morphological patterns were altered by varying the agar concentration. Expanding biofilms are initially flat but later undergo a mechanical instability and become wrinkled. To gain mechanistic insights into this dynamic pattern-formation process, we developed a model that considers diffusion of nutrients and their uptake by bacteria, bacterial growth/biofilm matrix production, mechanical deformation of both the biofilm and the substrate, and the friction between them. Our model shows quantitative agreement with experimental measurements of biofilm expansion dynamics, and it accurately predicts two distinct spatiotemporal patterns observed in the experiments-the wrinkles initially appear either in the peripheral region and propagate inward (soft substrate/low friction) or in the central region and propagate outward (stiff substrate/high friction). Our results, which establish that nonuniform growth and friction are fundamental determinants of stress anisotropy and hence biofilm morphology, are broadly applicable to bacterial biofilms with similar morphologies and also provide insight into how other bacterial biofilms form distinct wrinkle patterns. We discuss the implications of forming undulated biofilm morphologies, which may enhance the availability of nutrients and signaling molecules and serve as a “bet hedging” strategy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7622-7632
Number of pages11
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number14
StatePublished - Apr 7 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Bacterial biofilm
  • Chemomechanical model of growth
  • Vibrio cholerae
  • Wrinkling instability


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