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Scale-dependent tipping points of bacterial colonization resistance.


Bacteria are efficient colonizers of a wide range of secluded microhabitats, such as soil pores, skin follicles, or intestinal crypts. How the structural diversity of these habitats modulates microbial self-organization remains poorly understood, in part because of the difficulty to precisely manipulate the physical structure of microbial environments. Using a microfluidic device to grow bacteria in crypt-like incubation chambers of systematically varied lengths, we show that small variations in the physical structure of the microhabitat can drastically alter bacterial colonization success and resistance against invaders. Small crypts are uncolonizable; intermediately sized crypts can stably support dilute populations, while beyond a second critical length scale, populations phase separate into a dilute region and a jammed region. The jammed state is characterized by extreme colonization resistance, even if the resident strain is suppressed by an antibiotic. Combined with a flexible biophysical model, we demonstrate that colonization resistance and associated priority effects can be explained by a crowding-induced phase transition, which results from a competition between proliferation and density-dependent cell leakage. The emerging sensitivity to scale underscores the need to control for scale in microbial ecology experiments. Systematic flow-adjustable length-scale variations may serve as a promising strategy to elucidate further scale-sensitive tipping points and to rationally modulate the stability and resilience of microbial colonizers.

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