distinguishes surfaces by stiffness using retraction of type IV pili.
The ability of eukaryotic cells to differentiate surface stiffness is fundamental for many processes like stem cell development. Bacteria were previously known to sense the presence of surfaces, but the extent to which they could differentiate stiffnesses remained unclear. Here we establish that the human pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa actively measures surface stiffness using type IV pili (TFP). Stiffness sensing is nonlinear, as induction of the virulence factor regulator is peaked with stiffness in a physiologically important range between 0.1 kPa (similar to mucus) and 1,000 kPa (similar to cartilage). Experiments on surfaces with distinct material properties establish that stiffness is the specific biophysical parameter important for this sensing. Traction force measurements reveal that the retraction of TFP is capable of deforming even stiff substrates. We show how slow diffusion of the pilin PilA in the inner membrane yields local concentration changes at the base of TFP during extension and retraction that change with substrate stiffness. We develop a quantitative biomechanical model that explains the transcriptional response to stiffness. A competition between PilA diffusion in the inner membrane and a loss/gain of monomers during TFP extension/retraction produces substrate stiffness-dependent dynamics of the local PilA concentration. We validated this model by manipulating the ATPase activity of the TFP motors to change TFP extension and retraction velocities and PilA concentration dynamics, altering the stiffness response in a predictable manner. Our results highlight stiffness sensing as a shared behavior across biological kingdoms, revealing generalizable principles of environmental sensing across small and large cells.