Research ArticleMICROBIOLOGY

Helical and rod-shaped bacteria swim in helical trajectories with little additional propulsion from helical shape

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Science Advances  16 Nov 2016:
Vol. 2, no. 11, e1601661
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601661

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It has frequently been hypothesized that the helical body shapes of flagellated bacteria may yield some advantage in swimming ability. In particular, the helical-shaped pathogen Helicobacter pylori is often claimed to swim like a corkscrew through its harsh gastric habitat, but there has been no direct confirmation or quantification of such claims. Using fast time-resolution and high-magnification two-dimensional (2D) phase-contrast microscopy to simultaneously image and track individual bacteria in bacterial broth as well as mucin solutions, we show that both helical and rod-shaped H. pylori rotated as they swam, producing a helical trajectory. Cell shape analysis enabled us to determine shape as well as the rotational and translational speed for both forward and reverse motions, thereby inferring flagellar kinematics. Using the method of regularized Stokeslets, we directly compare observed speeds and trajectories to numerical calculations for both helical and rod-shaped bacteria in mucin and broth to validate the numerical model. Although experimental observations are limited to select cases, the model allows quantification of the effects of body helicity, length, and diameter. We find that due to relatively slow body rotation rates, the helical shape makes at most a 15% contribution to propulsive thrust. The effect of body shape on swimming speeds is instead dominated by variations in translational drag required to move the cell body. Because helical cells are one of the strongest candidates for propulsion arising from the cell body, our results imply that quite generally, swimming speeds of flagellated bacteria can only be increased a little by body propulsion.

  • Bacteria motility
  • fluid dynamics
  • kinematics
  • swimming of flagellated micro-organisms
  • Helicobacter pylori
  • mucin
  • bacteria shape

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