Bacteria secrete a variety of compounds important for nutrient scavenging, competition mediation and infection establishment. While there is a general consensus that secreted compounds can be shared and therefore have social consequences for the bacterial collective, we know little about the physical limits of such bacterial social interactions. Here, we address this issue by studying the sharing of iron-scavenging siderophores between surface attached microcolonies of the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Using single-cell fluorescence microscopy, we show that siderophores, secreted by producers, quickly reach non-producers within a range of 100 mm, and significantly boost their fitness. Producers in turn respond to variation in sharing efficiency by adjusting their pyoverdine investment levels. These social effects wane with larger cell-to-cell distances and on hard surfaces.
Thus, our findings reveal the boundaries of compound sharing, and show that sharing is particularly relevant between nearby yet physically separated bacteria on soft surfaces, matching realistic natural conditions such as those encountered in soft tissue infections.