Internal epithelial surfaces in humans are both oxygenated and physically protected by a few hundred microns thick hydrogel mucosal layer, conditions that might support bacterial aerotaxis. However, the potential role of aerotaxis in crossing such a thin hydrogel layer is not clear. Here, we used a new setup to study the potential role of motility and chemotaxis in the bacterial colonization of surfaces covered by a thin hydrogel layer and subjected to a vertical oxygen gradient. Using the bacterium Escherichia coli, we show that both non-motile and motile-but-non-chemotactic bacteria could barely reach the surface. However, an acquired mutation in the non-chemotactic bacteria that altered their inherent swimming behavior led to a critical enhancement of surface colonization. Most chemotactic strains accumulated within the bulk of the hydrogel layer, except for the MG1655 strain, which showed a unique tendency to accumulate directly at the oxygenated surface and thus exhibited distinctly enhanced colonization. Even after a long period of bacterial growth, non-motile bacteria could not colonize the hydrogel. Thus, switching motility, which can be spontaneously acquired or altered in vivo, is critical for the colonization of such protected surfaces, whereas aerotaxis capacity clearly expedites surface colonization, and can lead to diverse colonization patterns.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
The authors thank Sandy Parkinson for providing strains and comments on this manuscript and also thank Dr. Miriam Kott-Gutkowski (Laboratory for Whole Genome Sequencing, Hadassah Medical School, Hebrew University) for assistance. This work was supported by the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation, and the Minerva Center for Bio-Hybrid Complex Systems.