Aqueous films limit bacterial cell motility and colony expansion on partially saturated rough surfaces


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Bacterial motility is a key mechanism for survival in a patchy environment and is important for ecosystem biodiversity maintenance. Quantitative description of bacterial motility in soils is hindered by inherent heterogeneity, pore-space complexity and dynamics of microhydrological conditions. Unsaturated conditions result in fragmented aquatic habitats often too small to support full bacterial immersion thereby forcing strong interactions with mineral and air interfaces that significantly restrict motility. A new hybrid model was developed to study hydration effects on bacterial motility. Simulation results using literature parameter values illustrate sensitivity of colony expansion rates to hydration conditions and are in general agreement with measured values. Under matric potentials greater than −0.5 kPa (wet), bacterial colonies grew fast at colony expansion rates exceeding 421 ± 94 µm h−1; rates dropped significantly to 31 ± 10 µm h−1 at −2 kPa; as expected, no significant colony expansion was observed at −5 kPa because of the dominance of capillary pinning forces in the submicrometric water film. Quantification of hydration-related constraints on bacterial motion provides insights into optimal conditions for bacterial dispersion and spatial ranges of resource accessibility important for bioremediation and biogeochemical cycles. Results define surprisingly narrow range of hydration conditions where motility confers ecological advantage on natural surfaces.