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The ability of cells to target or avoid particular substances is called chemotaxis. Until now, scientists have generally considered the chemotactic properties of bacteria to be a common feature of a species or population -- as if all cells behaved more or less the same. In this case, average values are sufficient to describe their movement behaviour. Now, researchers at ETH Zurich have observed the chemotaxis of bacteria in a behavioural experiment. "If you look with the appropriate technology, you'll find astonishing behavioural differences even within a population of genetically identical cells," report Mehdi Salek and Francesco Carrara, the lead authors of a study recently published in Nature Communications.
Together with their colleagues in the research group led by Professor Roman Stocker at the Institute of Environmental Engineering, they have developed a special microfluidic system that allows them to observe the movement of thousands of individual bacteria in a liquid at extremely small scales. The system comprises a series of narrow channels that branch out on to a thin glass plate to form a sort of microscopic maze through which the bacteria swim.
Mazes - Studies - Preferences - Organisms - Insects
Such mazes are often used in experimental studies of the behavioural preferences of other organisms, such as insects or worms (and also plant roots). With their microfluidic system, the ETH researchers were able for the first time to apply this traditional tool of ecologists on a microscopic scale. Their maze resembles a family tree, with a starting channel that branches out again and again towards the bottom, where the concentration of a chemical attractant is at its highest.
The bacteria all start in the same place -- and visibly divide up within the channel system as they are forced to decide at each fork whether to swim up or down the...
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