Symbiotic bacteria often navigate complex environments before colonizing privileged sites in their host organism. Chemical gradients are known to facilitate directional taxis of these bacteria, guiding them toward their eventual destination. However, less is known about the role of physical features in shaping the path the bacteria take and defining how they traverse a given space. The flagellated marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri, which forms a binary symbiosis with the Hawaiian bobtail squid, Euprymna scolopes, must navigate tight physical confinement during colonization, squeezing through a tissue bottleneck constricting to ∼2 μm in width on the way to its eventual home. Using microfluidic in vitro experiments, we discovered that V. fischeri cells alter their behavior upon entry into confined space, straightening their swimming paths and promoting escape from confinement. Using a computational model, we attributed this escape response to two factors: reduced directional fluctuation and a refractory period between reversals. Additional experiments in asymmetric capillary tubes confirmed that V. fischeri quickly escape from confined ends, even when drawn into the ends by chemoattraction. This avoidance was apparent down to a limit of confinement approaching the diameter of the cell itself, resulting in a balance between chemoattraction and evasion of physical confinement. Our findings demonstrate that nontrivial distributions of swimming bacteria can emerge from simple physical gradients in the level of confinement. Tight spaces may serve as an additional, crucial cue for bacteria while they navigate complex environments to enter specific habitats.
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