Confinement discerns swarmers from planktonic bacteria

Weijie Chen, Neha Mani, Hamid Karani, Hao Li, Sridhar Mani, Jay X. Tang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Powered by flagella, many bacterial species exhibit collective motion on a solid surface commonly known as swarming. As a natural example of active matter, swarming is also an essential biological phenotype associated with virulence, chemotaxis, and host pathogenesis. Physical changes like cell elongation and hyper-flagellation have been shown to accompany the swarming phenotype. Less studied, however, are the contrasts of collective motion between the swarming cells and their counterpart planktonic cells of comparable cell density. Here, we show that confining bacterial movement in circular microwells allows distinguishing bacterial swarming from collective swimming. On a soft agar plate, a novel bacterial strain Enterobacter sp. SM3 in swarming and planktonic states exhibited different motion patterns when confined to circular microwells of a specific range of sizes. When the confinement diameter was between 40 mm and 90 mm, swarming SM3 formed a single-swirl motion pattern in the microwells whereas planktonic SM3 formed multiple swirls. Similar differential behavior is observed across several other species of gram-negative bacteria. We also observed ‘rafting behavior’ of swarming bacteria upon dilution. We hypothesize that the rafting behavior might account for the motion pattern difference. We were able to predict these experimental features via numerical simulations where swarming cells are modeled with stronger cell–cell alignment interaction. Our experimental design using PDMS microchip disk arrays enabled us to observe bacterial swarming on murine intestinal surface, suggesting a new method for characterizing bacterial swarming under complex environments, such as in polymicrobial niches, and for in vivo swarming exploration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere64176
StatePublished - Apr 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)


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