Erratic bacteria come together to swarm as one

It seems the more we learn about bacteria,the more impressively complex and relatable they become. 

We know that bacteria communicate with one another through electrical messaging, and now new research suggests erratically moving cells combine to engage in a kind of synchronised dance in order to self-organise – a process known as collective oscillation.

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E. coli bacteria move by flicking their tail-like flagella around.
Credit: DR UCT / Getty Images

Collective oscillation is a functional part of many natural processes, from the cellular development of embryos to the regulation of neuronal behaviour in the brain. 

Now physicists in China, France and Hong Kong have observed and filmed millions of Escherichia coli cells moving in seemingly random ways are actually forming weakly synchronised patterns in the form of long, languid circles (which you can see in the video above).

To spot this pattern of self-organisation, the team averaged the erratic movements of each cell over thousands of micrometres.

“We find that millions of motile cells in dense bacterial suspensions can self-organise into highly robust collective oscillatory motion,” the researchers write in Nature.

The team believes this synchronised dance, which is controlled by local interactions between cells, could inspire new strategies to control the self-organisation of robot swarms.

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