Bacteria, Biofilms, Antibiotic Resistance and Infections

This is a biofilm created by Staphylococcus bacteria on a catheter. The fibrous slime connects bacterial cells together.
This is a biofilm created by Staphylococcus bacteria on a catheter. The fibrous slime connects bacterial cells together. | Source

Bacteria are interesting and abundant microorganisms that sometimes exist as separate cells. Many bacteria grow in colonies called biofilms, however. In a biofilm, bacteria are attached to each other and to a solid surface, They are also surrounded by a protective material which they secrete. The bacteria in the colony communicate and cooperate with each other. In fact, a biofilm acts almost like a multicellular organism instead of a colony of single cells.

Biofilms form in our bodies. Unfortunately, the bacteria in these films are often harder to attack with antibiotics than bacteria living outside the films. This makes some infections difficult to treat. Studies of biofilm bacteria will hopefully lead to improved treatments for some very unpleasant diseases.

Bacterial biofilms are present on human and animal teeth and gums and are known as dental plaque. This yawning animal is a type of monkey known as a drill.
Bacterial biofilms are present on human and animal teeth and gums and are known as dental plaque. This yawning animal is a type of monkey known as a drill. | Source

Where Are Biofilms Found?

Biofilms form in many places. They generally develop on a surface that is surrounded by liquid, such as our teeth and gums, where the film is known as dental plaque. Biofilms may also develop in other areas of the body, such as on mucosal membranes in sinuses and airways and in wounds. In addition, they can form on metal, plastic and other artificial materials. They may develop on medical devices such as contact lenses, artificial heart valves, joint replacements, urinary catheters and dental implants. Showers and water pipes may contain biofilms and so may drains and sewage treatment plants. Biofilms can also form on rocks in streams and aquariums.

A biofilm often has a slimy consistency and can be large enough for us to see without magnification. It may contain one species of bacteria, several bacterial species, or some mixture of bacteria, fungi, algae and other organisms.

Anything that goes into the eye must be clean and washed frequently. Bacterial biofilms can form on contact lenses.
Anything that goes into the eye must be clean and washed frequently. Bacterial biofilms can form on contact lenses. | Source

How Does a Biofilm Form?

The first step in biofilm production is the formation of a conditioning film on a surface. Body fluids and liquids such as pond and sewage water contain polysaccharides, proteins and other substances that are quickly deposited on any solid that is placed in the liquid. The deposit, or conditioning film, provides nutrition and a suitable habitat for bacteria.

Free-floating bacteria (also called planktonic bacteria) land on the conditioning film and stick to it. The bacteria have several means of adhesion. For example, some bacteria have many small projections called pilli on their cell wall, which help them stick to other bacteria and to surfaces.

The bacterial cells become surrounded by a protective material that they release, which is sticky and helps attach them to each other and to the solid surface. This material is known as EPS (Extracellular Polymeric Substance). It contains polymers such as polysaccharides, proteins and sometimes DNA. A “polymer” is a large molecule made of smaller molecules joined together.

The extracellular matrix of a biofilm protects the bacteria from attack by the host’s immune system. As new bacterial cells arrive or are made, they attach to the solid surface and/or to other bacteria in the biofilm. This causes the film to enlarge.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, contains the genetic code of an organism. It's present in bacterial cells, human cells and the cells of all other living things. The presence of extracellular DNA (DNA that is outside cells) appears to be necessary for the formation of a bacterial biofilm.

Formation of a Bacterial Biofilm

Biofilms and Infections

Numerous human diseases are known to be caused by bacterial biofilms. These diseases include sinusitis (inflammation of the sinus), endocarditis (inflammation of the inner layer of the heart muscle, especially around the heart valves), Legionnaire's disease, prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate gland), otitis media (inflammation of the middle ear) and a persistent lung infection by a bacterium called Pseudomonas aeruginosa that occurs in many cystic fibrosis patients.

One problematic factor in biofilm infections is that the film has the ability to release a group of bacteria, which can then create another biofilm in a different area of the body.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa is an interesting bacterium. It contains a pigment that fluoresces under UV light. Unfortunately, it can form biofilms in the lungs and on medical equipment.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa is an interesting bacterium. It contains a pigment that fluoresces under UV light. Unfortunately, it can form biofilms in the lungs and on medical equipment. | Source

Bacterial Communication and Cooperation in a Biofilm

As strange as it may sound, the bacteria in a biofilm communicate with each other. They do this by releasing chemicals called signaling molecules or autoinducers. The signaling molecules affect other bacteria in a process called quorum sensing.

In quorum sensing, bacteria change their gene expression based on the presence of signaling molecules in their environment and the density of the bacterial population. "Gene expression" means that a gene becomes active, instructing the cell to make a specific substance. A signaling molecule released by one bacterium joins to a receptor on the surface of another bacterium, triggering the activity of specific genes.

When there aren't many bacteria in the biofilm, there is a low level of signaling molecules in the extracellular material. As the population grows, however, the concentration of signaling molecules becomes more concentrated. A threshold level of signaling molecules must be present before the bacteria respond. When they do respond, they all change their behavior at the same time and in the same way as specific genes are "turned on".

Quorum sensing is used by bacteria to coordinate activities which are more useful when done in a group rather than by a single bacterium. Examples of these activities include the production of substances which aid the attack on the host or that aid the production of the biofilm.

Bonnie Bassler Discusses Quorum Sensing in Bacteria

Antibiotic Resistance in a Biofilm

The outer cells of a biofilm protect the inner cells from attack by disinfectants and antibiotics. The outer cells are more active than the inner cells. Antibiotics may be able to kill the active surface cells of the biofilm, but not the less active, non-dividing inner cells, which are often called persister cells. When the antibiotic treatment is finished, the persister cells can multiply and build up the biofilm again.

Antibiotics are sometimes able to kill planktonic bacterial cells but are much less effective at killing biofilm bacteria. Scientists haven't known about biofilms for very long and need time to understand how the different bacteria in the film function and to create more effective medications to destroy them. The activities of bacteria in biofilms are different from those of their free-living counterparts.

Antibiotics are medications that kill bacteria. One problem is that bacteria are becoming resistant to common antibiotics. Another is that bacteria living in biofilms are much harder to kill than those that live on their own.
Antibiotics are medications that kill bacteria. One problem is that bacteria are becoming resistant to common antibiotics. Another is that bacteria living in biofilms are much harder to kill than those that live on their own. | Source

Destroying Bacterial Biofilms

Scientists are discovering that more and more bacteria form biofilms. Some researchers estimate that up to 80% of human microbial infections are caused by biofilm bacteria.

There is a great deal of research being done to find ways to stop the formation of biofilms or to remove them once they form. Silver compounds in bandages have shown some success in breaking up biofilms in wounds and making the bacteria inside the films more susceptible to antibiotic attack. Silver has long been known to kill planktonic bacteria. However, research is showing that a much higher concentration of silver is needed to affect biofilm bacteria. Silver coatings are sometimes applied to catheters and have reduced infections. There is some concern about the safety of high concentrations of silver inside the human body, however.

The Promise of Biofilm Research

Good and Bad Bacteria

We need to understand quorum sensing in bacteria. We also need to know how to disrupt biofilms created by harmful bacteria and how to interfere with their internal communication. However, it's important to remember that not all bacteria are bad.

Bonnie Bassler is a scientist who studies bacterial communication. As she says in the quote below, many bacteria in our bodies help us instead of making us sick. This is especially true for the bacteria that live in our intestine. In the case of helpful bacteria, it may be advantageous to enhance quorum sensing.

Although they can sometimes be a nuisance or dangerous to humans, researchers find bacterial biofilms very interesting to study. There is a lot to learn about the behavior of the bacteria in the films. They are certainly more complex than most people realize.

We mostly don't get sick. Most often, bacteria are keeping us well.

— Bonnie Bassler

© 2011 Linda Crampton

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Comments 14 comments

CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

Fascinating Alicia. You know so much about the human body! I had never heard of biofilms before, so thanks for all the great information.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, CMHypno. I find the functioning of the human body very interesting! Thank you for the visit and comment.


b. Malin profile image

b. Malin 5 years ago

I have to agree with CMHypno. This Hub was quite a learning Experience as well as a little scary but there is so much out there and I guess we can't live in fear. Science will hopefully conquer in the future. Thanks for sharing, Alicia. Enjoyed the Video's as well.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, b. Malin. Yes, it is a bit scary that bacteria have more advanced abilities than we realized. However, a lot of scientists are researching the problem of killing bacteria in biofilms, which is a hopeful sign!


Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois

Who would have thought the subject of bacteria could be so interesting! Well, I thought it was and you did a great job of putting this in a way we 'non-scientists' could understand. I especially appreciated it when you added definitions to some of the terms such as 'gene expression.' There is a lot about the natural world -- on all levels -- that we have yet to learn.

Thanks for the interesting hub.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, Danette. I appreciate your comment. I love biology and want to write about it in a way that people without a science background can understand and hopefully find interesting as well.


prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 5 years ago from malang-indonesia

This was valuable information. Thanks for share with us. I learn much from you. Rate it up!

Prasetio


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Prasetio! Thank you very much for the comment and the rating.


Georgia 5 years ago

I'm a student in secondary education and have been researching persister cells for a while now in relation to E. coli, and I have a question hopefully you could help me with. Is is possible for persister cells to emerge in a colony which has lost it's ability to produce a biofilm, or simply in planktonic bacterium?


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Georgia. Most persister cells exist in biofilms, but a low concentration of persister cells seems to be present in some cultures of planktonic bacteria too.


ssiddhanta 4 years ago

Solid information. Thank you :)


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment, ssiddhanta!


Rob 3 years ago

Good stuff. I see people watching for improvements in science, but nature has been dealing with this all along, with or without our cognitive awareness. Look around and see. Now that we know what we're looking at, we'll see it. Plants changing whole biochemistries to deal with predator attack, change their taste and nutritional qualities? They aren't so helpless after all either. I expect it will unfold infinitely and science will always be saying, well, would you look at that! Certainly I see no end in sight at this rate. But keep learning. It's good.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the visit, Rob. The ways in which species evolve and develop new features are certainly fascinating!

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