Physico-chemistry of bacterial transmission versus adhesion

Niar Gusnaniar, Henny C. van der Mei*, Wenwen Qu, Titik Nuryastuti, Johanna M. M. Hooymans, Jelmer Sjollema, Henk J. Busscher

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review

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Bacterial adhesion is a main problem in many biomedical, domestic, natural and industrial environments and forms the onset of the formation of a biofilm, in which adhering bacteria grow into a multi-layered film while embedding themselves in a matrix of extracellular polymeric substances. It is usually assumed that bacterial adhesion occurs from air or by convective-diffusion from a liquid suspension, but often bacteria adhere by transmission from a bacterially contaminated donor to a receiver surface. Therewith bacterial transmission is mechanistically different from adhesion, as it involves bacterial detachment from a donor surface followed by adhesion to a receiver one. Transmission is further complicated when the donor surface is not covered with a single layer of adhering bacteria but with a multi-layered biofilm, in which case bacteria can be transmitted either by interfacial failure at the biofilm-donor surface or through cohesive failure in the biofilm. Transmission through cohesive failure in a biofilm is more common than interfacial failure. The aim of this review is to oppose surface thermodynamics and adhesion force analyses, as can both be applied towards bacterial adhesion, with their appropriate extensions towards transmission. Opposition of surface thermodynamics and adhesion force analyses, will allow to distinguish between transmission of bacteria from a donor covered with a (sub)monolayer of adhering bacteria or a multi layered biofilm. Contact angle measurements required for surface thermodynamic analyses of transmission are of an entirely different nature than analyses of adhesion forces, usually measured through atomic force microscopy. Nevertheless, transmission probabilities based on Weibull analyses of adhesion forces between bacteria and donor and receiver surfaces, correspond with the surface thermodynamic preferences of bacteria for either the donor or receiver surface. Surfaces with low adhesion forces such as polymer-brush coated or nanostructured surfaces are thus preferable for use as non-adhesive receiver surfaces, but at the same time should be avoided for use as a donor surface. Since bacterial transmission occurs under a contact pressure between two surfaces, followed by their separation under tensile or shear pressure and ultimately detachment, this will affect biofilm structure. During the compression phase of transmission, biofilms are compacted into a more dense film. After transmission, and depending on the ability of the bacterial strain involved to produce extracellular polymeric substances, biofilm left-behind on a donor or transmitted to a receiver surface will relax to its original, pre-transmission structure owing to the viscoelasticity of the extracellular polymeric substances matrix, when present. Apart from mechanistic differences between bacterial adhesion and transmission, the low numbers of bacteria generally transmitted require careful selection of suitably sensitive enumeration methods, for which culturing and optical coherence tomography are suggested. Opposing adhesion and transmission as done in this review, not only yields a better understanding of bacterial transmission, but may stimulate researchers to more carefully consider whether an adhesion or transmission model is most appropriate in the specific area of application aimed for, rather than routinely relying on adhesion models.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-24
Number of pages10
JournalAdvances in Colloid and Interface Science
Publication statusPublished - Dec-2017


  • Biofilm
  • Bacterial detachment
  • Surface free energy
  • Adhesion force
  • Viscoelasticity
  • EPS

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