Coming Unglued: The Potential to Break Apart Biofilms

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Science Translational Medicine  16 May 2012:
Vol. 4, Issue 134, pp. 134ec85
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3004286

Biofilms are microbes that are stuck to surfaces. To stick, microbes produce their own scaffolding: a tough, protective matrix of polysaccharides and proteins. This matrix is part of what makes these biofilms a big health problem. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics—for instance, in hospital-associated infections—is frequently the fault of biofilms. In order to kill biofilm bacteria, we need to expose the vulnerable bacteria beneath. Kolodkin-Gal and colleagues have identified a molecule called norspermidine that specifically disrupts biofilm matrix exopolysaccharide.

The authors noted that biofilms of the bacterium Bacillus subtilis spontaneously dispersed after remaining stable for long periods. By isolating chemical fractions of old, dispersed biofilm cultures, the polyamine norspermidine was identified. Dynamic light scattering and scanning electron microscopy experiments showed that these disruptive effects of norspermidine were very specific in culture, in which only norspermidine and norspermine affect biofilm exopolysaccharide. When Kolodkin-Gal et al. added norspermidine exogenously to pure culture assays, norspermidine could inhibit biofilm formation for several bacterial species in addition to B. subtilis, including Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus. Thus, norspermidine may be a promising agent to prevent biofilm formation and for use as a therapeutic to disrupt the matrix and better treat biofilm infections.

This work is in its earliest stages; research will be required to test the efficacy of norspermidine in vivo. In parallel, future studies will be required to determine the specific mechanism of the norspermidine-polysaccharide interaction. The ability to use a natural bacterial product to induce their own biofilm disassembly would allow for improved treatment of many biofilm-associated infections, which annually number in the billions worldwide.

I. Kolodkin-Gal et al., A self-produced trigger for biofilm disassembly that targets exopolysaccharide. Cell 149, 684–692 (2012). [Abstract]

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