Background Auto-aggregation is a desired property for probiotic strains because it is suggested to promote colonization of the human intestine, to prevent pathogen infections and to modulate the colonic mucosa. We recently reported the generation of adapted mutants of Lactiplantibacillus plantarum NZ3400, a derivative of the model strain WCFS1, for colonization under adult colonic conditions of PolyFermS continuous intestinal fermentation models. Here we describe and characterize the emerge of an auto-aggregating phenotype in L. plantarum NZ3400 derivatives recovered from the modelled gut microbiota. Results L. plantarum isolates were recovered from reactor effluent of four different adult microbiota and from spontaneously formed reactor biofilms. Auto-aggregation was observed in L. plantarum recovered from all microbiota and at higher percentage when recovered from biofilm than from effluent. Further, auto-aggregation percentage increased over time of cultivation in the microbiota. Starvation of the gut microbiota by interrupting the inflow of nutritive medium enhanced auto-aggregation, suggesting a link to nutrient availability. Auto-aggregation was lost under standard cultivation conditions for lactobacilli in MRS medium. However, it was reestablished during growth on sucrose and maltose and in a medium that simulates the abiotic gut environment. Remarkably, none of these conditions resulted in an auto-aggregation phenotype in the wild type strain NZ3400 nor other non-aggregating L. plantarum , indicating that auto-aggregation depends on the strain history. Whole genome sequencing analysis did not reveal any mutation responsible for the auto-aggregation phenotype. Transcriptome analysis showed highly significant upregulation of LP_RS05225 ( msa ) at 4.1–4.4 log2-fold-change and LP_RS05230 ( marR ) at 4.5–5.4 log2-fold-change in all auto-aggregating strains compared to non-aggregating. These co-expressed genes encode a mannose-specific adhesin protein and transcriptional regulator, respectively. Mapping of the RNA-sequence reads to the promoter region of the msa - marR operon reveled a DNA inversion in this region that is predominant in auto-aggregating but not in non-aggregating strains. This strongly suggests a role of this inversion in the auto-aggregation phenotype. Conclusions L. plantarum NZ3400 adapts to the in vitro colonic environment by developing an auto-aggregation phenotype. Similar aggregation phenotypes may promote gut colonization and efficacy of other probiotics and should be further investigated by using validated continuous models of gut fermentation such as PolyFermS. Supplementary Information The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1186/s12866-021-02331-x.