In nature, bacteria often live in surface-associated communities known as biofilms. Biofilm-forming bacteria typically deposit a layer of polysaccharide on the surfaces they inhabit; hence, polysaccharide is their immediate environment on many surfaces. In this study, we examined how the physical characteristics of polysaccharide substrates influence the behavior of the biofilm-forming bacterium Myxococcus xanthus. M. xanthus responds to the compression-induced deformation of polysaccharide substrates by preferentially spreading across the surface perpendicular to the axis of compression. Our results suggest that M. xanthus is not responding to the water that accumulates on the surface of the polysaccharide substrate after compression or to compression-induced changes in surface topography such as the formation of troughs. These directed surface movements do, however, consistently match the orientation of the long axes of aligned and tightly packed polysaccharide fibers in compressed substrates, as indicated by behavioral, birefringence and small angle X-ray scattering analyses. Therefore, we suggest that the directed movements are a response to the physical arrangement of the polymers in the substrate and refer to the directed movements as polymertropism. This behavior might be a common property of bacteria, as many biofilm-forming bacteria that are rod-shaped and motile on soft surfaces exhibit polymertropism.
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