Earthquake-like dynamics in Myxococcus xanthus social motility

Maxsim L. Gibiansky, Wei Hu, Karin A. Dahmen, Wenyuan Shi, Gerard C.L. Wong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Myxococcus xanthus is a bacterium capable of complex social organization. Its characteristic social ("S")-motility mechanism is mediated by type IV pili (TFP), linear actuator appendages that propel the bacterium along a surface. TFP are known to bind to secreted exopolysaccharides (EPS), but it is unclear how M. xanthus manages to use the TFP-EPS technology common to many bacteria to achieve its unique coordinated multicellular movements. We examine M. xanthus S-motility, using high-resolution particle-tracking algorithms, and observe aperiodic stick-slip movements. We show that they are not due to chemotaxis, but are instead consistent with a constant TFP-generated force interacting with EPS, which functions both as a glue and as a lubricant. These movements are quantitatively homologous to the dynamics of earthquakes and other crackling noise systems. These systems exhibit critical behavior, which is characterized by a statistical hierarchy of discrete "avalanche" motions described by a power law distribution. The measured critical exponents from M. xanthus are consistent with mean field theoretical models and with other crackling noise systems, and the measured Lyapunov exponent suggests the existence of highly branched EPS. Such molecular architectures, which are common for efficient lubricants but rare in bacterial EPS, may be necessary for S-motility: We show that the TFP of leading "locomotive" cells initiate the collective motion of follower cells, indicating that lubricating EPS may alleviate the force generation requirements on the lead cell and thus make S-motility possible.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2330-2335
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number6
StatePublished - Feb 5 2013


  • Biofilm
  • Proteobacteria
  • Sociomicrobiology
  • Tribology
  • Twitching

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General

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