Stenosis triggers spread of helical Pseudomonas biofilms in cylindrical flow systems

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Biofilms are multicellular bacterial structures that adhere to surfaces and often endow the bacterial population with tolerance to antibiotics and other environmental insults. Biofilms frequently colonize the tubing of medical devices through mechanisms that are poorly understood. Here we studied the helicoidal spread of Pseudomonas putida biofilms through cylindrical conduits of varied diameters in slow laminar flow regimes. Numerical simulations of such flows reveal vortical motion at stenoses and junctions, which enhances bacterial adhesion and fosters formation of filamentous structures. Formation of long, downstream-flowing bacterial threads that stem from narrowings and connections was detected experimentally, as predicted by our model. Accumulation of bacterial biomass makes the resulting filaments undergo a helical instability. These incipient helices then coarsened until constrained by the tubing walls, and spread along the whole tube length without obstructing the flow. A three-dimensional discrete filament model supports this coarsening mechanism and yields simulations of helix dynamics in accordance with our experimental observations. These findings describe an unanticipated mechanism for bacterial spreading in tubing networks which might be involved in some hospital-acquired infections and bacterial contamination of catheters.
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