Adhesion as a weapon in microbial competition

New article from Kevin Foster’s group on how adhesion can be beneficial to individual cells in a biofilm and the implications on evolution within the biofilm and advantages during infection.


Microbes attach to surfaces and form dense communities known as biofilms, which are central to how microbes live and influence humans. The key defining feature of biofilms is adhesion, whereby cells attach to one another and to surfaces, via attachment factors and extracellular polymers. While adhesion is known to be important for the initial stages of biofilm formation, its function within biofilm communities has not been studied. Here we utilise an individual-based model of microbial groups to study the evolution of adhesion. While adhering to a surface can enable cells to remain in a biofilm, consideration of within-biofilm competition reveals a potential cost to adhesion: immobility. Highly adhesive cells that are resistant to movement face being buried and starved at the base of the biofilm. However, we find that when growth occurs at the base of a biofilm, adhesion allows cells to capture substratum territory and force less adhesive, competing cells out of the system. This process may be particularly important when cells grow on a host epithelial surface. We test the predictions of our model using the enteric pathogen Vibrio cholerae, which produces an extracellular matrix important for biofilm formation. Flow cell experiments indicate that matrix-secreting cells are highly adhesive and form expanding clusters that remove non-secreting cells from the population, as predicted by our simulations. Our study shows how simple physical properties, such as adhesion, can be critical to understanding evolution and competition within microbial communities.

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