Cholera Bacteria Stab and Poison Enemies so Predictably

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Physicist Peter Yunker applies mathematical equations to enemy colonies of dueling cholera bacteria to accurately predict the speed dynamics of their phase separation into divided territories, a process similar to the separation of oil and water. The equations were originally used to describe phase separate in materials, namely mixed metals (Model A equations). Credit: Georgia Tech / Rob Felt

A kid fascinated by Horton the Elephant -- a Dr. Seuss children's book character who gushed about a microscopic world -- grew up to become a Georgia Tech microbiologist. Now Brian Hammer shares the excitement he observes under microscopes: For example, cholera bacteria wage war on their enemies by stabbing and poisoning them.

Competing strains of cholera are stained red and blue respectively to tell them apart, then mixed together thoroughly to appear as purple. They duel each other using poisonous harpoons and separate into blue and red colonies. Credit: Georgia Tech / Yunker, Hammer, Ratcliff

Physicist Peter Yunker, microbiologist Brian Hammer, and evolutionary biologist Will Ratcliff (left to right) look at a screen of bacteria that have phase separated into divided colonies in Yunker's lab at Georgia Tech. Credit: Georgia Tech / Rob Felt

Physicist Peter Yunker, microbiologist Brian Hammer, and evolutionary biologist Will Ratcliff (left to right) in Yunker's lab at Georgia Tech with cultures of Vibrio cholerae and a monitor screen displaying bacteria that have phase separated into divided colonies. Credit: Georgia Tech / Rob Felt

Cultures of competing strains of cholera bacteria. Credit: Georgia Tech / Rob Felt