Biofilm formers and surface explorers

In the early stages of biofilm formation, bacteria produce different amounts of a signaling molecule to form two groups that behave in complementary ways.
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Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria can infect the lungs of patients with cystic fibrosis and form a biofilm. Image credit: Janice Haney Carr (CC0)

Bacteria can adopt different lifestyles, depending on the environment in which they grow. They can exist as single cells that are free to explore their environment or group together to form ‘biofilms’. The bacteria in biofilms stick to a surface, and produce a slimy ‘matrix’ that covers and thereby protects them. Biofilms have been found in lung infections that affect people with the genetic disorder cystic fibrosis, and can also form on the surface of medical implants. Because the biofilm lifestyle protects bacteria from the immune system and antimicrobial drugs, learning about how biofilms form could help researchers to discover ways to prevent and treat such infections.

Many bacteria switch between the free-living and biofilm lifestyles by altering their levels of a signaling molecule called cyclic diguanylate monophosphate (called c-di-GMP for short). Bacteria living in biofilms have much higher levels of c-di-GMP than their free-living counterparts, and bacteria that have high levels of c-di-GMP produce more biofilm matrix.

Bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa use a protein signaling complex called the Wsp system to sense that they are on a surface and increase c-di-GMP production. Questions remained about how quickly this change in production occurs, and whether bacteria pass on their c-di-GMP levels to the new descendant cells when they divide.

Armbruster et al. monitored individual cells of P. aeruginosa producing c-di-GMP as they began to form biofilms. Unexpectedly, not all cells increased their c-di-GMP levels when they first attached to a surface. Instead, Armbruster et al. found that there are two populations – high and low c-di-GMP cells – that each perform complementary and important tasks in the early stages of biofilm formation.

The high c-di-GMP cells represent ‘biofilm founders’ that start to produce the biofilm matrix, whereas the low c-di-GMP cells represent ‘surface explorers’ that spend more time traveling along the surface. Armbruster et al. found that the Wsp surface sensing system generates these two populations of cells. Moreover, the c-di-GMP levels in a bacterial cell even affect the behavior of the descendant cells that form when it divides. This effect can persist for several cell generations.

More work is needed to examine exactly how the biofilm founders and surface explorers interact and influence how biofilms form, and to discover if blocking c-di-GMP signaling prevents biofilm formation. This could ultimately lead to new strategies to prevent and treat infections in humans.