Signal transduction in bacteria is complex, ranging across scales from molecular signal detectors and effectors to cellular and community responses to stimuli. The unicellular, photosynthetic cyanobacterium Synechocystis sp. PCC6803 transduces a light stimulus into directional movement known as phototaxis. This response occurs via a biased random walk toward or away from a directional light source, which is sensed by intracellular photoreceptors and mediated by Type IV pili. It is unknown how quickly cells can respond to changes in the presence or directionality of light, or how photoreceptors affect single-cell motility behavior. In this study, we use time-lapse microscopy coupled with quantitative single-cell tracking to investigate the timescale of the cellular response to various light conditions and to characterize the contribution of the photoreceptor TaxD1 (PixJ1) to phototaxis. We first demonstrate that a community of cells exhibits both spatial and population heterogeneity in its phototactic response. We then show that individual cells respond within minutes to changes in light conditions, and that movement directionality is conferred only by the current light directionality, rather than by a long-term memory of previous conditions. Our measurements indicate that motility bias likely results from the polarization of pilus activity, yielding variable levels of movement in different directions. Experiments with a photoreceptor (taxD1) mutant suggest a supplementary role of TaxD1 in enhancing movement directionality, in addition to its previously identified role in promoting positive phototaxis. Motivated by the behavior of the taxD1 mutant, we demonstrate using a reaction-diffusion model that diffusion anisotropy is sufficient to produce the observed changes in the pattern of collective motility. Taken together, our results establish that single-cell tracking can be used to determine the factors that affect motility bias, which can then be coupled with biophysical simulations to connect changes in motility behaviors at the cellular scale with group dynamics.
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