By manipulating the way bacteria "talk" to each other, researchers at Texas A&M University have achieved an unprecedented degree of control over the formation and dispersal of biofilms - a finding with potentially significant health and industrial applications, particularly to bioreactor technology.
Working with E. coli
bacteria, Professor Thomas K. Wood and Associate Professor Arul Jayaraman of the university's Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering have employed specific signals sent and received between bacteria to trigger the dispersal of biofilm. Their findings appear online in Nature Communications.
The finding is a significant one, Wood said, because biofilms are notoriously difficult to break apart. A community of bacteria living together, a biofilm is a protective and adhesive slime that exhibits increased resistance to outside threats such as antibiotics
. The film can grow on a variety of living and nonliving surfaces, including submerged rocks, food, teeth (as plaque) and biomedical implants such as knee and hip replacements.
While biofilm can pose serious health risks, its use in industrial applications such as in bioreactors is offering hope for an alternative-fuels future, Wood said. Genetically tweaked and grown in these reactors, biofilm can be used to produce a variety of chemicals such as propanol
and butanol. And because the bacteria within biofilm feed on glucose, bioreactors using biofilms have the potential to help transform the economy. These reactors also benefit from the robust nature of biofilm, a trait that makes the film ideal for use, Wood said.
"We want to eventually make with bacteria all the things we currently make in chemical refineries," Wood said. "Towards this goal, the reactor of the future is a biofilm reactor. The main reason is if someone who is operating the reactor, for example, coughs, it doesn't go crazy. If the pH level drops, the biofilm will remain robust and the...