Collective behavior can spontaneously emerge when individuals follow common rules of interaction. However, the behavior of each individual differs due to existing genetic and non-genetic variation within the population. It remains unclear how this individuality is managed to achieve collective behavior. We quantify individuality in bands of clonal Escherichia coli cells that migrate collectively along a channel by following a self-generated gradient of attractant. We discover that despite substantial differences in individual chemotactic abilities, the cells are able to migrate as a coherent group by spontaneously sorting themselves within the moving band. This sorting mechanism ensures that differences between individual chemotactic abilities are compensated by differences in the local steepness of the traveling gradient each individual must navigate, and determines the minimum performance required to travel with the band. By resolving conflicts between individuality and collective migration, this mechanism enables populations to maintain advantageous diversity while on the move.How bacteria migrate collectively despite individual phenotypic variation is not understood. Here, the authors show that cells spontaneously sort themselves within moving bands such that variations in individual tumble bias, a determinant of gradient climbing speed, are compensated by the local gradient steepness experienced by individuals.
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