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Frontiers in Microbiology

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The microfluidic mother machine platform has attracted much interest for its potential in studies of bacterial physiology, cellular organization, and cell mechanics. Despite numerous experiments and development of dedicated analysis software, differences in bacterial growth and morphology in narrow mother machine channels compared to typical liquid media conditions have not been systematically characterized. Here we determine changes in E. coli growth rates and cell dimensions in different sized dead-end microfluidic channels using high resolution optical microscopy. We find that E. coli adapt to the confined channel environment by becoming narrower and longer compared to the same strain grown in liquid culture. Cell dimensions decrease as the channel length increases and width decreases. These changes are accompanied by increases in doubling times in agreement with the universal growth law. In channels 100 μm and longer, cell doublings can completely stop as a result of frictional forces that oppose cell elongation. Before complete cessation of elongation, mechanical stresses lead to substantial deformation of cells and changes in their morphology. Our work shows that mechanical forces rather than nutrient limitation are the main growth limiting factor for bacterial growth in long and narrow channels.


This article was published openly thanks to the University of Tennessee Open Publishing Support Fund.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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