Evaporation-driven convective flows in suspensions of nonmotile bacteria

Jocelyn Dunstan, Kyoung J. Lee, Yongyun Hwang, Simon F. Park, Raymond E. Goldstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


We report a novel form of convection in suspensions of the bioluminescent marine bacterium Photobacterium phosphoreum. Suspensions of these bacteria placed in a chamber open to the air create persistent luminescent plumes most easily visible when observed in the dark. These flows are strikingly similar to the classical bioconvection pattern of aerotactic swimming bacteria, which create an unstable stratification by swimming upwards to an air-water interface, but they are a puzzle since the strain of P. phosphoreum used does not express flagella and therefore cannot swim. When microspheres were used instead of bacteria, similar flow patterns were observed, suggesting that the convective motion was not driven by bacteria but instead by the accumulation of salt at the air-water interface due to evaporation of the culture medium. Even at room temperature and humidity, and physiologically relevant salt concentrations, the water evaporation was found to be sufficient to drive convection patterns. To prove this hypothesis, experiments were complemented with a mathematical model that aimed to understand the mechanism of plume formation and the role of salt in triggering the instability. The simplified system of evaporating salty water was first studied using linear stability analysis, and then with finite element simulations. A comparison between these three approaches is presented. While evaporation-driven convection has not been discussed extensively in the context of biological systems, these results suggest that the phenomenon may be broadly relevant, particularly in those systems involving microorganisms of limited motility.

Original languageEnglish
Article number123101
JournalPhysical Review Fluids
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 2018 Dec

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 authors. Published by the American Physical Society. Published by the American Physical Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Further distribution of this work must maintain attribution to the author(s) and the published article's title, journal citation, and DOI.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computational Mechanics
  • Modelling and Simulation
  • Fluid Flow and Transfer Processes


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