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It's a stirring tale of bacteria

Poetry in motion are not words usually applied to bacteria. But when researchers at the University of Arizona looked into a petri dish, that's what they saw.

Groups of bacteria streamed through the fluid, creating an ever-changing pattern of swirls and blips visible to naked eye. In a bacterial ballet, the tiny organisms seemed to be moving through the fluid of the dish in coordinated fashion, almost like flocking in birds or schooling in fish.

"We all looked at this and said, 'Oh my goodness, why is this happening?' We were all surprised. We are still surprised," said Raymond Goldstein, professor of physics and applied mathematics at the University of Arizona in Tucson. On Monday, Feb. 16, at 5:30 p.m., he will give a presentation at the Biophysical Society annual meeting in Baltimore about the phenomenon, which he and his colleagues call "self-concentration."

Other members of the UA research team are John Kessler, emeritus professor of physics, and UA graduate students Christopher Dombrowski, Luis Cisneros, and Sunita Chatkaew. Some of the research funding was provided by the National Science Foundation.

Although there had been theoretical suggestions that such "flocking" behavior might be not be limited to birds or fish, this could be the first time it's been observed in bacteria.

The bacteria the UA team observed, Bacillus subtilis, swim by rotating a series of corkscrew-like appendages, called flagella, that are about five times the body length of one of the rod-shaped bacteria.

In a culture, when a bacterium uses up the dissolved oxygen nearby, it swims toward the oxygen-rich surface. So do all its fellows. But at the same time gravity acts to pull the bacteria back down. The swimming-up and sinking-down sets up a convective current, much as does cold air sinking toward the floor of a room.

The currents created by one swimming bacterium affect the others. Once a critical concentration of bacteria is
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