The natural habitats of microorganisms in the human microbiome, ocean and soil ecosystems are full of colloids and macromolecules. Such environments exhibit non-Newtonian flow properties, drastically affecting the locomotion of microorganisms1–5. Although the low-Reynolds-number hydrodynamics of swimming flagellated bacteria in simple Newtonian fluids has been well developed6–9, our understanding of bacterial motility in complex non-Newtonian fluids is less mature10,11. Even after six decades of research, fundamental questions about the nature and origin of bacterial motility enhancement in polymer solutions are still under debate12–23. Here we show that flagellated bacteria in dilute colloidal suspensions display quantitatively similar motile behaviours to those in dilute polymer solutions, in particular a universal particle-size-dependent motility enhancement up to 80% accompanied by a strong suppression of bacterial wobbling18,24. By virtue of the hard-sphere nature of colloids, whose size and volume fraction we vary across experiments, our results shed light on the long-standing controversy over bacterial motility enhancement in complex fluids and suggest that polymer dynamics may not be essential for capturing the phenomenon12–23. A physical model that incorporates the colloidal nature of complex fluids quantitatively explains bacterial wobbling dynamics and mobility enhancement in both colloidal and polymeric fluids. Our findings contribute to the understanding of motile behaviours of bacteria in complex fluids, which are relevant for a wide range of microbiological processes25 and for engineering bacterial swimming in complex environments26,27.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
We thank P. Agrawal, S. Ghosh, Y. Kim, Z. Liu, R. Patel and G. Pradipta for help with experiments and data analysis and S. Guo, P. Kolliopoulos, E. Lauga, Y. Man and Z. Qu for fruitful discussions. We would also like to acknowledge the late Professor Howard Berg, who answered our questions on E. coli mutant strains. This research is supported by the IPRIME program of University of Minnesota, and by the US National Science Foundation CBET-1702352 and 2028652. X.X. acknowledges the financial support from National Natural Science Foundation of China no. 11974038 and no. U1930402. Portions of this work were conducted in the Minnesota Nano Center, which is supported by the US National Science Foundation through the National Nano Coordinated Infrastructure Network (NNCI) under award number ECCS-2025124.
© 2022, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.
PubMed: MeSH publication types
- Journal Article
- Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
- Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.