Physical limits on bacterial navigation in dynamic environments

Andrew M. Hein, Douglas R. Brumley, Francesco Carrara, Roman Stocker, Simon A. Levin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Many chemotactic bacteria inhabit environments in which chemicals appear as localized pulses and evolve by processes such as diffusion and mixing. We show that, in such environments, physical limits on the accuracy of temporal gradient sensing govern when and where bacteria can accurately measure the cues they use to navigate. Chemical pulses are surrounded by a predictable dynamic region, outside which bacterial cells cannot resolve gradients above noise. The outer boundary of this region initially expands in proportion to the square root of time before rapidly contracting. Our analysis also reveals how chemokinesis the increase in swimming speed many bacteria exhibit when absolute chemical concentration exceeds a threshold may serve to enhance chemotactic accuracy and sensitivity when the chemical landscape is dynamic. More generally, our framework provides a rigorous method for partitioning bacteria into populations that are 'near' and 'far' from chemical hotspots in complex, rapidly evolving environments such as those that dominate aquatic ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20150844
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number114
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Bioengineering
  • Biophysics
  • Biochemistry
  • Biotechnology
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Biomaterials


  • Chemokinesis
  • Chemotaxis
  • Heterogeneity
  • Microbial ecology
  • Navigation


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