Bacteria, Biofilms, Antibiotic Resistance, and Infections
Bacteria in Biofilms
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.
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. The films 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.
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 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.
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)
- a persistent lung infection by Pseudomonas aeruginosa (which 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. These bacteria can then create another biofilm in a different part of the body.
Bacterial Communication and Cooperation
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 the 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 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
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.
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 organisms than most people realize.
We mostly don't get sick. Most often, bacteria are keeping us well.— Bonnie Bassler
- Oak Crest Institute of Science. "Link between antibiotics, bacterial biofilms and chronic infections found." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140710101531.htm (accessed September 18, 2017).
- McDonald, Kim. "Biologists Discover That Bacteria Communicate Like Neurons in the Brain." University of California San Diego. http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/pressrelease/biologists_discover_bacteria_communicate_like_neurons_in_the_brain (accessed September 18, 2017).
- Wu, H., Moser, C., Wang, H.-Z., Høiby, N., & Song, Z.-J. (2015). Strategies for combating bacterial biofilm infections. International Journal of Oral Science, 7(1), 1–7. http://doi.org/10.1038/ijos.2014.65
© 2011 Linda Crampton