The near-surface swimming patterns of bacteria are determined by hydrodynamic interactions between the bacteria and the surface, which trap the bacteria in smooth circular trajectories that lead to inefficient surface exploration. Here, we combine experiments with a data-driven mathematical model to show that the surface exploration of a pathogenic strain of Escherichia coli results from a complex interplay between motility and transient surface adhesion events. These events allow the bacteria to break the smooth circular trajectories and regulate their transport properties by exploiting stop events that are facilitated by surface adhesion and lead to characteristic intermittent motion on surfaces. We find that the experimentally measured frequency of these stop-adhesion events coincides with the value that maximizes bacterial surface diffusivity according to our mathematical model. We discuss the applicability of our experimental and theoretical results to other bacterial strains on different surfaces. Our findings suggest that swimming bacteria use transient adhesion as a generic mechanism to regulate surface motion.

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The data that support the plots within this paper and other findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request.

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We thank L. Gómez Nava, R. Großmann, A. Be’er, and G. and G. Volpe for insightful comments on the text. Experiments were performed at the C3M Imaging Core Facility (Microscopy and Imaging platform Côte d’Azur, MICA). We acknowledge support from grant ANR-15-CE30-0002-01 (project ‘BactPhys’) and from Biocodex SA (Gentilly, France).

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Author notes

  1. These authors contributed equally: Emiliano Perez Ipiña, Stefan Otte.


  1. Université Côte d’Azur, Lab. J. A. Dieudonné, UMR 7351 CNRS, Nice, France

    • Emiliano Perez Ipiña
    • , Stefan Otte
    •  & Fernando Peruani
  2. Centre Scientifique de Monaco, Monaco, Monaco

    • Rodolphe Pontier-Bres
    •  & Dorota Czerucka


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D.C. and F.P. designed the study. D.C. and R.P.-B. performed experiments. E.P.I., S.O. and F.P. performed the image and statistical analysis of the data and derived the mathematical models used to interpret the data. F.P. wrote the manuscript with the help of all authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Fernando Peruani.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–8 and Supplementary Table 1.

  2. Reporting Summary

  3. Supplementary Video 1

    E. coli motion close to a surface, highlighting a bacterium with circular motion.

  4. Supplementary Video 2

    E. coli motion close to a surface, highlighting a bacterium with circular motion interrupted by jumps in the moving direction.

  5. Supplementary Video 3

    E. coli motion close to a surface, highlighting a bacterium with straight trajectories interrupted by jumps in the moving direction.

  6. Supplementary Video 4

    Same trajectory as in Supplementary Video 3, additionally showing the evolution of the speed of the bacterium.

  7. Supplementary Video 5

    An E. coli bacterium’s smooth motion is interrupted by a process in which the bacterium quickly rotates on a fixed spot on the glass surface. The motion resembles bacterial tethering.

  8. Supplementary Video 6

    An E. coli bacterium showing several events of adhesion with different durations. Events are labelled from A to D. A and C are short events with a duration within the timescale of the state zero. C and D show a larger duration corresponding

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