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Infectious disease

Bacterial biofilms have a hidden weakness that could be exploited by antibiotics

Nutrient-transporting channels could provide a back door for antibiotics to fight persistent infections

by Laura Howes
June 28, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 25

A fluorescence image showing the channel structures in a biofilm.
Credit: Liam M. Rooney et al.
Fluorescent imaging reveals the complex architecture of channels within an E. coli biofilm.

Biofilms are communities of bacteria that cannot easily be killed with antibiotics because they are protected by a tough polymer matrix that deflects antibiotics. When researchers at the University of Strathclyde used powerful imaging technology to look underneath that armor, they expected to see a fairly homogeneous mass of cells. Instead they found that the bacterial communities form a complicated architecture of channels. Their reconnaissance mission has yielded architectural plans that could help scientists find a secret door to deliver drugs to the center of biofilm communities to help fight infections (ISME J. 2020, DOI:10.1038/s41396-020-0700-9). Liam M. Rooney imaged a biofilm using a mesoscope that resolves features down to 700 nm in size (smaller than a single E. coli) over a 6 mm field of view and to a depth of 3 mm, revealing the channels. Rooney then used a variety of methods to determine that the channels are made of proteins and can suck up food. These channels, Rooney says, seem to be how large microbial communities access nutrients from the outside. Perhaps, he says, this secret route could get drugs under the protective armor. Next, the researchers want to understand how the channels form in the first place.


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