Letter | Published:

Escherichia coli swim on the right-hand side

Naturevolume 435pages12711274 (2005) | Download Citation



The motion of peritrichously flagellated bacteria close to surfaces is relevant to understanding the early stages of biofilm formation and of pathogenic infection1,2,3,4. This motion differs from the random-walk trajectories5 of cells in free solution. Individual Escherichia coli cells swim in clockwise, circular trajectories near planar glass surfaces6,7. On a semi-solid agar substrate, cells differentiate into an elongated, hyperflagellated phenotype and migrate cooperatively over the surface8, a phenomenon called swarming. We have developed a technique for observing isolated E. coli swarmer cells9 moving on an agar substrate and confined in shallow, oxidized poly(dimethylsiloxane) (PDMS) microchannels. Here we show that cells in these microchannels preferentially ‘drive on the right’, swimming preferentially along the right wall of the microchannel (viewed from behind the moving cell, with the agar on the bottom). We propose that when cells are confined between two interfaces—one an agar gel and the second PDMS—they swim closer to the agar surface than to the PDMS surface (and for much longer periods of time), leading to the preferential movement on the right of the microchannel. Thus, the choice of materials guides the motion of cells in microchannels.

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We thank W. S. Ryu, D. Ryan, M. P. Brenner and H. A. Stone for discussions, and S. Rojevskaya for technical assistance. This research was supported by the NIH and DOE. W.R.D. acknowledges an NSF-IGERT Biomechanics Training Grant. M.M. acknowledges a postdoctoral fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation. P.G. thanks the Foundation for Polish Science for a postdoctoral fellowship. D.B.W. thanks the NIH for a postdoctoral fellowship.

Author information


  1. Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Harvard University, 12 Oxford Street, Massachusetts, 02138, Cambridge, USA

    • Willow R. DiLuzio
    • , Michael Mayer
    • , Piotr Garstecki
    • , Douglas B. Weibel
    •  & George M. Whitesides
  2. Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University, 29 Oxford Street, Massachusetts, 02138, Cambridge, USA

    • Willow R. DiLuzio
  3. The Rowland Institute at Harvard, 100 Edwin H. Land Boulevard, 02142, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

    • Linda Turner
    •  & Howard C. Berg
  4. Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Harvard University, 16 Divinity Avenue, 02138, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

    • Howard C. Berg


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Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at npg.nature.com/reprintsandpermissions. The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to George M. Whitesides.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Data

    Results from experiments where the surfactant and ionic strength of the motility agar was varied, presented in Supplementary Table S1, and histograms of the lengths and speeds of cells traveling along the right and left channel wall. (DOC 311 kb)

  2. Supplementary Methods

    Methods used to grow swarmer cells, the preparation of PDMS films, image acquisition and data analysis, the fabrication of silicon masters, and the preparation of GFP-cells. (DOC 29 kb)

  3. Supplementary Video S1

    Real-time movement to the right of E. coli swarmer cells (AW405) in composite agar/PDMS microchannels that are 10 m wide and 1.4 µm tall. Nutrient agar forms the floor of the channel and a patterned PDMS film forms the sidewalls and ceiling. (MPG 975 kb)

  4. Supplementary Video S2

    Real-time movement to the right of E. coli swarmer cells (AW405) in composite agar/PDMS microchannels that are 3 m wide and 1.4 µm tall. Nutrient agar forms the floor of the channel and a patterned PDMS film forms the sidewalls and ceiling. (MPG 808 kb)

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