An important environmental factor that determines the mode of motility adopted by Pseudomonas aeruginosa is the viscosity of the medium, often provided by adjusting agar concentrations in vitro. However, the viscous gel-like property of the mucus layer that overlays epithelial surfaces is largely due to the glycoprotein mucin. P. aeruginosa is known to swim within 0.3% (wt/vol) agar and swarm on the surface at 0.5% (wt/vol) agar with amino acids as a weak nitrogen source. When physiological concentrations or as little as 0.05% (wt/vol) mucin was added to the swimming agar, in addition to swimming, P. aeruginosa was observed to undergo highly accelerated motility on the surface of the agar. The surface motility colonies in the presence of mucin appeared to be circular, with a bright green center surrounded by a thicker white edge. While intact flagella were required for the surface motility in the presence of mucin, type IV pili and rhamnolipid production were not. Replacement of mucin with other wetting agents indicated that the lubricant properties of mucin might contribute to the surface motility. Based on studies with mutants, the quorum-sensing systems (las and rhl) and the orphan autoinducer receptor QscR played important roles in this form of surface motility. Transcriptional analysis of cells taken from the motility zone revealed the upregulation of genes involved in virulence and resistance. Based on these results, we suggest that mucin may be promoting a new or highly modified form of surface motility, which we propose should be termed "surfing.".
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