Using liquid crystals to reveal how mechanical anisotropy changes interfacial behaviors of motile bacteria

TitleUsing liquid crystals to reveal how mechanical anisotropy changes interfacial behaviors of motile bacteria
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsMushenheim, PC, Trivedi, RR, Weibel, DB, Abbott, NL
JournalBiophysical JournalBiophysical Journal
Date PublishedJul 1
ISBN Number0006-3495
KeywordsAnisotropy, Elasticity, Liquid Crystals/*chemistry, Proteus mirabilis/*physiology

Bacteria often inhabit and exhibit distinct dynamical behaviors at interfaces, but the physical mechanisms by which interfaces cue bacteria are still poorly understood. In this work, we use interfaces formed between coexisting isotropic and liquid crystal (LC) phases to provide insight into how mechanical anisotropy and defects in LC ordering influence fundamental bacterial behaviors. Specifically, we measure the anisotropic elasticity of the LC to change fundamental behaviors of motile, rod-shaped Proteus mirabilis cells (3 mum in length) adsorbed to the LC interface, including the orientation, speed, and direction of motion of the cells (the cells follow the director of the LC at the interface), transient multicellular self-association, and dynamical escape from the interface. In this latter context, we measure motile bacteria to escape from the interfaces preferentially into the isotropic phase, consistent with the predicted effects of an elastic penalty associated with strain of the LC about the bacteria when escape occurs into the nematic phase. We also observe boojums (surface topological defects) present at the interfaces of droplets of nematic LC (tactoids) to play a central role in mediating the escape of motile bacteria from the LC interface. Whereas the bacteria escape the interface of nematic droplets via a mechanism that involved nematic director-guided motion through one of the two boojums, for isotropic droplets in a continuous nematic phase, the elasticity of the LC generally prevented single bacteria from escaping. Instead, assemblies of bacteria piled up at boojums and escape occurred through a cooperative, multicellular phenomenon. Overall, our studies show that the dynamical behaviors of motile bacteria at anisotropic LC interfaces can be understood within a conceptual framework that reflects the interplay of LC elasticity, surface-induced order, and topological defects.