Among horizontally acquired symbioses, the mechanisms underlying microbial strain- and species-level specificity remain poorly understood. Here, confocal-microscopy analyses and genetic manipulation of the squid-vibrio association revealed quantitative differences in a symbiont's capacity to interact with the host during initial engagement. Specifically, dominant strains of Vibrio fischeri, 'D-type', previously named for their dominant, single-strain colonization of the squid's bioluminescent organ, were compared with 'S-type', or 'sharing', strains, which can co-colonize the organ. These D-type strains typically: (i) formed aggregations of 100s-1000s of cells on the light-organ surface, up to 3 orders of magnitude larger than those of S-type strains; (ii) showed dominance in co-aggregation experiments, independent of inoculum size or strain proportion; (iii) perturbed larger areas of the organ's ciliated surface; and, (iv) appeared at the pore of the organ approximately 4×s more quickly than S-type strains. At least in part, genes responsible for biofilm synthesis control the hyperaggregation phenotype of a D-type strain. Other marine vibrios produced relatively small aggregations, while an array of marine Gram-positive and -negative species outside of the Vibrionaceae did not attach to the organ's surface. These studies provide insight into the impact of strain variation on early events leading to establishment of an environmentally acquired symbiosis.
© 2018 Society for Applied Microbiology and John Wiley & Sons Ltd.