Extracellular-matrix-mediated osmotic pressure drives Vibrio cholerae biofilm expansion and cheater exclusion.
Biofilms, surface-attached communities of bacteria encased in an extracellular matrix, are a major mode of bacterial life. How the material properties of the matrix contribute to biofilm growth and robustness is largely unexplored, in particular in response to environmental perturbations such as changes in osmotic pressure. Here, using Vibrio cholerae as our model organism, we show that during active cell growth, matrix production enables biofilm-dwelling bacterial cells to establish an osmotic pressure difference between the biofilm and the external environment. This pressure difference promotes biofilm expansion on nutritious surfaces by physically swelling the colony, which enhances nutrient uptake, and enables matrix-producing cells to outcompete non-matrix-producing cheaters via physical exclusion. Osmotic pressure together with crosslinking of the matrix also controls the growth of submerged biofilms and their susceptibility to invasion by planktonic cells. As the basic physicochemical principles of matrix crosslinking and osmotic swelling are universal, our findings may have implications for other biofilm-forming bacterial species.Most bacteria live in biofilms, surface-attached communities encased in an extracellular matrix. Here, Yan et al. show that matrix production in Vibrio cholerae increases the osmotic pressure within the biofilm, promoting biofilm expansion and physical exclusion of non-matrix producing cheaters.