To cope in complex environments, motile bacteria have developed a chemosensory system that integrates multiple cues and directs their motion toward regions that it deems favorable. However, we have a limited understanding of the principles that govern bacterial behavior in complex stimuli fields. Here, we followed the spatial redistribution of E. coli cells in perplexing environments created by a local source of both beneficial (nutrients) and hazardous (low pH or indole) effectors. We identified two fundamentally distinct collective responses: a ‘trade-off’ response, in which bacteria sharply accumulated at a distance from the source that reflected a trade-off between the propagating effectors, and a ‘bet-hedging’ response, in which part of the bacteria accumulated away from the source, avoiding the hazardous effector, while the other part evaded the repulsive force and accumulated at the source. In addition, we demonstrate that cells lacking the Tsr sensor swim toward both repellents and, surprisingly, even toward pH values well below 7. Using a numerical analysis, we could correlate the collective bacterial responses with fundamentally distinct chemotactic force fields created along the channel by the propagation of the effectors and their unique perception by the chemosensory system.
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