The concentration of chemicals inside the bacterial cytoplasm generates an osmotic pressure, termed turgor, which inflates the cell and is necessary for cell growth and survival. In Escherichia coli, a sudden increase in external concentration causes a pressure drop across the cell envelope that drives changes in cell shape, such as plasmolysis, where the inner and outer membranes separate. Here, we use fluorescence imaging of single cells during hyperosmotic shock with a time resolution on the order of seconds to examine the response of cells to a range of different conditions. We show that shock using an outer-membrane impermeable solute results in total cell volume reduction with no plasmolysis, whereas a shock caused by outer-membrane permeable ions causes plasmolysis immediately upon shock. Slowly permeable solutes, such as sucrose, which cross the membrane in minutes, cause plasmolysis to occur gradually as the chemical potential equilibrates. In addition, we quantify the detailed morphological changes to cell shape during osmotic shock. Nonplasmolyzed cells shrink in length with an additional lateral size reduction as the magnitude of the shock increases. Quickly plasmolyzing cells shrink largely at the poles, whereas gradually plasmolyzing cells invaginate along the cell cylinder. Our results give a comprehensive picture of the initial response of E. coli to hyperosmotic shock and offer explanations for seemingly opposing results that have been reported previously.
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