Mechanical Interactions in Microbial Colonies

Microbial populations often assemble in dense populations in which proliferating individuals exert mechanical forces on the nearby cells. In, we showed that mechanical interactions among cells affect the competition between different genotypes in growing yeast colonies. Our experiments demonstrate that these physical interactions have two related effects: they cause the prolonged survival of slower-growing strains at the actively-growing frontier of the colony and cause faster-growing strains to increase their frequency more slowly than expected in the absence of physical interactions. These effects also promote the survival of slower-growing strains and the maintenance of genetic diversity in colonies grown in time-varying environments. A continuum model inspired by overdamped hydrodynamics reproduces the experiments and predicts that the strength of natural selection depends on the width of the actively-growing layer at the colony frontier. We verify these predictions experimentally. The reduced power of natural selection observed here may favor the maintenance of drug-resistant cells in microbial populations and could explain the apparent neutrality of inter-clone competition within tumors.