Physico-chemistry from initial bacterial adhesion to surface-programmed biofilm growth

Vera Carniello, Brandon W. Peterson, Henny C. van der Mei*, Henk J. Busscher

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

66 Citations (Scopus)
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Biofilm formation is initiated by adhesion of individual bacteria to a surface. However, surface adhesion alone is not sufficient to form the complex community architecture of a biofilm. Surface-sensing creates bacterial awareness of their adhering state on the surface and is essential to initiate the phenotypic and genotypic changes that characterize the transition from initial bacterial adhesion to a biofilm. Physico-chemistry has been frequently applied to explain initial bacterial adhesion phenomena, including bacterial mass transport, role of substratum surface properties in initial adhesion and the transition from reversible to irreversible adhesion. However, also emergent biofilm properties, such as production of extracellular-polymeric-substances (EPS), can be surface-programmed. This review presents a four-step, comprehensive description of the role of physico-chemistry from initial bacterial adhesion to surface-programmed biofilm growth: (1) bacterial mass transport towards a surface, (2) reversible bacterial adhesion and (3) transition to irreversible adhesion and (4) cell wall deformation and associated emergent properties. Bacterial transport mostly occurs from sedimentation or convective-diffusion, while initial bacterial adhesion can be described by surface thermodynamic and Derjaguin-Landau-Verwey-Overbeek (DLVO)-analyses, considering bacteria as smooth, inert colloidal particles. DLVO-analyses however, require precise indication of the bacterial cell surface, which is impossible due to the presence of bacterial surface tethers, creating a multi-scale roughness that impedes proper definition of the interaction distance in DLVO-analyses. Application of surface thermodynamics is also difficult, because initial bacterial adhesion is only an equilibrium phenomenon for a short period of time, when bacteria are attached to a substratum surface through few surface tethers. Physico-chemical bond strengthening occurs in several minutes leading to irreversible adhesion due to progressive removal of interfacial water, conformational changes in cell surface proteins, re-orientation of bacteria on a surface and the progressive involvement of more tethers in adhesion. After initial bond-strengthening, adhesion forces arising from a substratum surface cause nanoscopic deformation of the bacterial cell wall against the elasticity of the rigid peptidoglycan layer positioned in the cell wall and the intracellular pressure of the cytoplasm. Cell wall deformation not only increases the contact area with a substratum surface, presenting another physico-chemical bond-strengthening mechanism, but is also accompanied by membrane surface tension changes. Membrane-located sensor molecules subsequently react to control emergent phenotypic and genotypic properties in biofilms, most notably adhesion associated ones like EPS production. Moreover, also bacterial efflux pump systems may be activated or mechanosensitive channels may be opened upon adhesion-induced cell wall deformation. The physico-chemical properties of the substratum surface thus control the response of initially adhering bacteria and through excretion of autoinducer molecules extend the awareness of their adhering state to other biofilm inhabitants who subsequently respond with similar emergent properties. Herewith, physico-chemistry is not only involved in initial bacterial adhesion to surfaces but also in what we here propose to call "surface-programmed" biofilm growth. This conclusion is pivotal for the development of new strategies to control biofilm formation on substratum surfaces, that have hitherto been largely confined to the initial bacterial adhesion phenomena.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalAdvances in Colloid and Interface Science
Publication statusPublished - Nov-2018


  • Biofilm
  • Surface-sensing
  • Physico-chemical interactions
  • Appendages
  • Tethers
  • EPS

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