Survival of the thickest

Tuberculosis bacteria growing in biofilms evolve by changing genetic regulators to produce thicker biofilms.

An example of tuberculosis biofilm (left) and the bacteria that form it (right). Image credit: Tracy Smith and John Kernien (CC BY 4.0)

In many environments, bacteria live together in structures called biofilms. Cells in biofilms coordinate with each other to protect the group and allow it to survive difficult conditions. Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis, forms biofilms when it infects the human body. Biofilms make the infection a lot more difficult to treat, which may be one of the reasons why tuberculosis is the deadliest bacterial infection in the world.

Bacteria evolve rapidly over the course of a single infection, but bacteria forming biofilms evolve differently to bacteria living alone. This evolution happens through mutations to the bacterial DNA, which can be small (a single base in a DNA sequence changes to a different base) or larger changes (such as the deletion or insertion of several bases).

Smith, Youngblom et al. studied the evolution of tuberculosis growing in biofilms in the lab. As the bacteria evolved, they tended to form thicker biofilms, an effect linked to 14 mutations involving single base DNA changes and four larger ones. Most of the changes were in regulatory regions of DNA, which control whether genes are ‘read’ by cells to produce proteins. These regions often change more though evolution than regions coding for proteins, because they have a coordinated effect on a group of related genes rather than randomly altering individual genes. Smith, Youngblom et al. also showed that biofilms made from different strains of tuberculosis evolved in different ways.

Smith Youngblom et al.’s findings provide more information regarding how bacteria adapt to living in biofilms, which may reveal new ways to control them. This could have applications in water treatment, food production and healthcare. Learning how to treat bacteria growing in biofilms could also improve the outcomes for patients infected with tuberculosis.