Bending forces plastically deform growing bacterial cell walls.
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1317497111
Cell walls define a cell's shape in bacteria. The walls are rigid to resist large internal pressures, but remarkably plastic to adapt to a wide range of external forces and geometric constraints. Currently, it is unknown how bacteria maintain their shape. In this paper, we develop experimental and theoretical approaches and show that mechanical stresses regulate bacterial cell wall growth. By applying a precisely controllable hydrodynamic force to growing rod-shaped Escherichia coli and Bacillus subtilis cells, we demonstrate that the cells can exhibit two fundamentally different modes of deformation. The cells behave like elastic rods when subjected to transient forces, but deform plastically when significant cell wall synthesis occurs while the force is applied. The deformed cells always recover their shape. The experimental results are in quantitative agreement with the predictions of the theory of dislocation-mediated growth. In particular, we find that a single dimensionless parameter, which depends on a combination of independently measured physical properties of the cell, can describe the cell's responses under various experimental conditions. These findings provide insight into how living cells robustly maintain their shape under varying physical environments.