E. coli “super-contaminates” narrow ducts fostered by broad run-time distribution

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Science Advances  13 Mar 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 11, eaay0155
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aay0155


One notable feature of bacterial motion is their ability to swim upstream along corners and crevices, by leveraging hydrodynamic interactions. This motion through anatomic ducts or medical devices might be at the origin of serious infections. However, it remains unclear how bacteria can maintain persistent upstream motion while exhibiting run-and-tumble dynamics. Here, we demonstrate that Escherichia coli can travel upstream in microfluidic devices over distances of 15 mm in times as short as 15 min. Using a stochastic model relating the run times to the time that bacteria spend on surfaces, we quantitatively reproduce the evolution of the contamination profiles when considering a broad distribution of run times. The experimental data cannot be reproduced using the usually accepted exponential distribution of run times. Our study demonstrates that the run-and-tumble statistics determine macroscopic bacterial transport properties. This effect, which we name “super-contamination,” could explain the fast onset of some life-threatening medical emergencies.

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