Weak synchronization and large-scale collective oscillation in dense bacterial suspensions

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Abstract

Collective oscillatory behaviour is ubiquitous in nature1, having a vital role in many biological processes from embryogenesis2and organ development3to pace-making in neuron networks4. Elucidating the mechanisms that give rise to synchronization is essential to the understanding of biological self-organization. Collective oscillations in biological multicellular systems often arise from long-range coupling mediated by diffusive chemicals2,5,6,7,8,9, by electrochemical mechanisms4,10, or by biomechanical interaction between cells and their physical environment11. In these examples, the phase of some oscillatory intracellular degree of freedom is synchronized. Here, in contrast, we report the discovery of a weak synchronization mechanism that does not require long-range coupling or inherent oscillation of individual cells. We find that millions of motile cells in dense bacterial suspensions can self-organize into highly robust collective oscillatory motion, while individual cells move in an erratic manner, without obvious periodic motion but with frequent, abrupt and random directional changes. So erratic are individual trajectories that uncovering the collective oscillations of our micrometre-sized cells requires individual velocities to be averaged over tens or hundreds of micrometres. On such large scales, the oscillations appear to be in phase and the mean position of cells typically describes a regular elliptic trajectory. We found that the phase of the oscillations is organized into a centimetre-scale travelling wave. We present a model of noisy self-propelled particles with strictly local interactions that accounts faithfully for our observations, suggesting that self-organized collective oscillatory motion results from spontaneous chiral and rotational symmetry breaking. These findings reveal a previously unseen type of long-range order in active matter systems (those in which energy is spent locally to produce non-random motion)12,13. This mechanism of collective oscillation may inspire new strategies to control the self-organization of active matter14,15,16,17,18and swarming robots19.

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