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Lobster-Pot Science

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Microbiology labs typically contain myriad flasks and stacks of petri dishes crowded with bacteria. That’s fine for someone studying their physiology or genetics. But for researchers wanting to gain insight into bacterial behavior, that laboratory setup is far from optimal.

The problem is that homogeneous environments, such as petri dishes, are quite different from the natural surroundings of microorganisms. There can be billions of bacteria on an agar plate or in an incubator’s liquid broth, but in the wild, bacteria tend to grow in dense clusters comprising a relatively small number of cells. Two collaborating groups at the University of Texas at Austin have devised a method of trapping bacteria, such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa or Escherichia coli, in microenvironments that more closely model their natural habitat—with some surprising results. (mBio, 1:e00202-10, 2010.)

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