Living matter expert Sujit Datta wins APS award for illuminating bacterial dynamics

Written by
Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering
Nov. 2, 2022

Sujit Datta, an expert in the physics of soft and living materials, has won the 2023 Early Career Award for Biological Physics from the American Physical Society (APS).

The award recognizes Datta’s work illuminating bacterial dynamics and organization, and “for inspiring the community to engage with these complex systems.” As part of the award, Datta, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, will give an invited talk at the APS March meeting. The award, established in 2021, is given annually to one early-career researcher.

Datta’s work with bacteria centers on his ability to watch these microbes with unprecedented clarity. In their experiments, Datta’s lab builds transparent environments that mimic native bacterial habitats, such as soil or living tissue, and images the bacteria moving, feeding and multiplying in ways that are fundamentally different than the behavior observed in a conventional Petri dish or liquid-filled test tube. The results have laid a new foundation for understanding the complex collective behaviors that emerge in bacterial communities, and promise to impact a wide range of environmental and biomedical technologies.

One recent study showed how bacterial communities grow in three dimensions, forming rough broccoli-like shapes that branch intricate patterns. A previous study showed how bacterial communities stick together during collective migration, especially when following food gradients. And a 2019 paper demonstrated how individual bacteria cells in complex environments such as soil hop from space to space and wriggle through the tiny traps between grains of dirt. Together, this and related work has revealed a far more careful and complete picture of how these organisms live and move in the world, leading to a major overhaul of how scientists understand bacteria and their effect on human life.

Datta joined Princeton in 2017 after a postdoctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology. In addition to his primary appointment, he is an associated faculty member in the Princeton Bioengineering Initiative, the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, the High Meadows Environmental Institute and the Princeton Institute of Materials. He is also a senior investigator at the Center for the Physics of Biological Function.