Bacterial chemotaxis in linear and nonlinear steady microfluidic gradients
Diffusion-based microfluidic devices can generate steady, arbitrarily shaped chemical gradients without requiring fluid flow and are ideal for studying chemotaxis of free-swimming cells such as bacteria. However, if microfluidic gradient generators are to be used to systematically study bacterial chemotaxis, it is critical to evaluate their performance with actual quantitative chemotaxis tests. We characterize and compare three diffusion-based gradient generators by confocal microscopy and numerical simulations, select an optimal design and apply it to chemotaxis experiments with Escherichia coli in both linear and nonlinear gradients. Comparison of the observed cell distribution along the gradients with predictions from an established mathematical model shows very good agreement, providing the first quantification of chemotaxis of free-swimming cells in steady nonlinear microfluidic gradients and opening the door to bacterial chemotaxis studies in gradients of arbitrary shape.