Extracellular polymeric substances affecting pore-scale hydrologic conditions for bacterial activity in unsaturated soils
Soil bacterial cells are often found embedded in biosynthesized extracellular polymeric substances ( EPS) forming aggregates or stationary colonies attached to solid surfaces. Soil bacterial aggregation and pooling of resources offer a successful adaptation to variations in hydration status and in nutrient availability and enhance cooperative genetic and metabolic exchanges. The ubiquity of such microbially excreted exopolymeric substances across many different environmental conditions and habitats is attributed to their key role in environmental adaptation, including colony architecture and anchoring, nutrient entrapment, and maintenance of favorable hydration conditions. This review focuses on the hydrophysical properties of EPS and its primary constituent, exopolysaccharides, and their role as an interface between living cells and the harsh conditions common to the shallow vadose zone. We review water retention, diffusion, and hydraulic properties of EPS and postulate mechanisms conferring an advantage to embedded bacterial cells. The shrink-swell behavior of EPS for different water potentials affects mean pore size and passage of solutes and colloids of different sizes; we evaluate various water-related morphological transformations of EPS that influence diffusion behavior in unsaturated soils. We hypothesize that EPS low permeability results in hydraulic decoupling during rapid wetting or drying events, effectively shielding embedded bacterial cells from adverse effects of extreme fluctuations in hydration conditions. We show that the addition of minute amounts of EPS significantly alters the hydrological conditions experienced by microbial colonies and, in some case, may alter macroscopic hydrological and mechanical properties of the host porous medium.