Parametric studies of metabolic cooperativity in Escherichia coli colonies: Strain and geometric confinement effects


Characterizing the complex spatial and temporal interactions among cells in a biological system (i.e. bacterial colony, microbiome, tissue, etc.) remains a challenge. Metabolic cooperativity in these systems can arise due to the subtle interplay between microenvironmental conditions and the cells’ regulatory machinery, often involving cascades of intra- and extracellular signalling molecules. In the simplest of cases, as demonstrated in a recent study of the model organism Escherichia coli, metabolic cross-feeding can arise in monoclonal colonies of bacteria driven merely by spatial heterogeneity in the availability of growth substrates; namely, acetate, glucose and oxygen. Another recent study demonstrated that even closely related E. coli strains evolved different glucose utilization and acetate production capabilities, hinting at the possibility of subtle differences in metabolic cooperativity and the resulting growth behavior of these organisms. Taking a first step towards understanding the complex spatio-temporal interactions within microbial populations, we performed a parametric study of E. coli growth on an agar substrate and probed the dependence of colony behavior on: 1) strain-specific metabolic characteristics, and 2) the geometry of the underlying substrate. To do so, we employed a recently developed multiscale technique named 3D dynamic flux balance analysis which couples reaction-diffusion simulations with iterative steady-state metabolic modeling. Key measures examined include colony growth rate and shape (height vs. width), metabolite production/consumption and concentration profiles, and the emergence of metabolic cooperativity and the fractions of cell phenotypes. Five closely related strains of E. coli, which exhibit large variation in glucose consumption and organic acid production potential, were studied. The onset of metabolic cooperativity was found to vary substantially between these five strains by up to 10 hours and the relative fraction of acetate utilizing cells within the colonies varied by a factor of two. Additionally, growth with six different geometries designed to mimic those that might be found in a laboratory, a microfluidic device, and inside a living organism were considered. Geometries were found to have complex, often nonlinear effects on colony growth and cross-feeding with “hard” features resulting in larger effect than “soft” features. These results demonstrate that strain-specific features and spatial constraints imposed by the growth substrate can have significant effects even for microbial populations as simple as isogenic E. coli colonies.

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