Myxococcus xanthus, a model organism for studies of multicellular behavior in bacteria, moves exclusively on solid surfaces using two distinct but coordinated motility mechanisms. One of these, social (S) motility is powered by the extension and retraction of type IV pili and requires the presence of exopolysaccharides (EPS) produced by neighboring cells. As a result, S motility requires close cell-to-cell proximity and isolated cells do not translocate. Previous studies measuring S motility by observing the colony expansion of cells deposited on agar have shown that the expansion rate increases with initial cell density, but the biophysical mechanisms involved remain largely unknown. To understand the dynamics of S motility-driven colony expansion, we developed a reaction-diffusion model describing the effects of cell density, EPS deposition and nutrient exposure on the expansion rate. Our results show that at steady state the population expands as a traveling wave with a speed determined by the interplay of cell motility and growth, a well-known characteristic of Fisher's equation. The model explains the density-dependence of the colony expansion by demonstrating the presence of a lag phase-a transient period of very slow expansion with a duration dependent on the initial cell density. We propose that at a low initial density, more time is required for the cells to accumulate enough EPS to activate S-motility resulting in a longer lag period. Furthermore, our model makes the novel prediction that following the lag phase the population expands at a constant rate independent of the cell density. These predictions were confirmed by S motility experiments capturing long-term expansion dynamics
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