‘Phase transitions’ in bacteria – From structural transitions in free living bacteria to phenotypic transitions in bacteria within biofilms

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Phase transitions are common in inanimate systems and have been studied extensively in natural sciences. Less explored are the rich transitions that take place at the micro- and nano-scales in biological systems. In conventional phase transitions, large-scale properties of the media change discontinuously in response to continuous changes in external conditions. Such changes play a significant role in the dynamic behaviours of organisms. In this review, we focus on some transitions in both free-living and biofilms of bacteria. Particular attention is paid to the transitions in the flagellar motors and filaments of free-living bacteria, in cellular gene expression during the biofilm growth, in the biofilm morphology transitions during biofilm expansion, and in the cell motion pattern transitions during the biofilm formation. We analyse the dynamic characteristics and biophysical mechanisms of these phase transition phenomena and point out the parallels between these transitions and conventional phase transitions. We also discuss the applications of some theoretical and numerical methods, established for conventional phase transitions in inanimate systems, in bacterial biofilms.

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