"Because the cell is immobilized, what we do is change the environment around it," Chemla said. "We can set up a flow cell that has two different concentrations of some chemical, for example, and see how the bacterium responds. Technically we're moving the swimming pool relative to the swimmer," he said.
The new approach allows the researchers to track a single bacterium as it swims for up to an hour, "which is orders of magnitude above what people could do before," Golding said. This will offer a new look at questions that so far have been unanswerable, he said.
"For example, some people have asked whether E. coli has a nose. Does it have a front and back?" Golding said. The team's observations indicate that while the bacterium can travel in either direction, most E. coli have "a pronounced preference" for one over the other, he said.
The researchers found that after most tumbles, a bacterium usually continued swimming in the same general direction, but that about one in six tumbles caused it to change direction completely. They were also able to quantify other features of bacterial swimming, such as changes in velocity and the time spent running and tumbling. The new technique will allow researchers to address many more questions about this model organism, they said.
"That's the typical way biology moves forward," Golding said. "You develop a new measurement capability and then you can use that to go back and look at fundamental questions that people had been looking at but had no way of answering."
|Contact: Diana Yates|
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign