Flow environment and matrix structure interact to determine spatial competition in biofilms.
Bacteria often live in biofilms, which are microbial communities surrounded by a secreted extracellular matrix. Here, we demonstrate that hydrodynamic flow and matrix organization interact to shape competitive dynamics in biofilms. Irrespective of initial frequency, in competition with matrix mutants, wild-type cells always increase in relative abundance in planar microfluidic devices under simple flow regimes. By contrast, in microenvironments with complex, irregular flow profiles - which are common in natural environments - wild-type matrix-producing and isogenic non-producing strains can coexist. This result stems from local obstruction of flow by wild-type matrix producers, which generates regions of near-zero shear that allow matrix mutants to locally accumulate. Our findings connect the evolutionary stability of matrix production with the hydrodynamics and spatial structure of the surrounding environment, providing a potential explanation for the variation in biofilm matrix secretion observed among bacteria in natural environments.