Sujit Datta: A method to spy on bacterial behavior in complex environments

Oct. 6, 2020

A new approach makes it possible to track how bacteria move through complex and uneven environments akin to the tissues of the body or the sediments of underground aquifers.

The new method makes it possible for researchers to study bacteria’s motion, self-organization, community structure and behavior in varied and porous environments. Sujit Datta and his team inject the bacteria into a transparent matrix made of hydrogel, a solid material that holds water in its three-dimensional network of cross-linked polymers. The advance makes it possible to study how microbial interactions might occur in the gastrointestinal tract, lungs and other parts of the body where the microbiome — a complex community of bacteria — resides. The technique can also answer questions about how bacteria move through underground aquifers or other natural locations where bacteria play a role in environmental contamination and cleanup.

Gels and sediments typically consist of intricate mixtures of solids and fluids that scientists call disordered porous media. The solid particles form a mesh through which liquid and gas flow, creating a complex and tortuous space that is difficult to describe with mathematics. The mixture contains uneven concentrations of material that can impede bacteria’s movement and squeeze them together.

The transparent hydrogel material allows researchers to see the location of bacteria as they migrate through the material. The researchers can also recover the bacteria after their journey to study them. They can simultaneously study several bacterial communities, visualize their structure and development, and, by labeling them with fluorescent tags, probe biological processes.

"By better predicting how bacteria move in complex spaces, we can better understand how pollutant-degrading bacteria spread in a groundwater aquifer, or how pathogens spread in the body during infection.” – Sujit Datta

Innovator: Sujit Datta, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Co-inventor: Postdoctoral research associate Tapomoy Bhattacharjee, a former Andlinger Center Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellow

Collaborators: Zemer Gitai, Edwin Grant Conklin Professor of Biology, and Mohamed Donia, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology

Additional team members: Graduate students Daniel Amchin and Jenna Ott; Glenda Chen, Class of 2020

Development status: Patent protection is pending. Princeton is currently seeking partners for further development of this technology.

Funding: National Science Foundation, Princeton’s Project X Innovation Fund, Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Technology Fund, and Princeton Catalysis Initiative

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Green bars migrate between transparent spheres

Researchers created a transparent porous matrix that closely mimics conditions where bacteria thrive, enabling the tracking of individual bacterial cells (green bar) through the complex geometry (transparent spheres). Image by the Datta Lab, Princeton University