Using Microscopy to Study Biofilms

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Diagram showing five stages of biofilm development of Pseudomonas aeruginosa. All photomicrographs are shown to same scale.

A biofilm forms when planktonic (free-floating) bacteria of one or more species adhere to a surface, produce slime, and form a colony. (credit: Public Library of Science)

OpenStax Microbiology

A biofilm is a complex community of one or more microorganism species, typically forming as a slimy coating attached to a surface because of the production of an extrapolymeric substance (EPS) that attaches to a surface or at the interface between surfaces (e.g., between air and water). In nature, biofilms are abundant and frequently occupy complex niches within ecosystems. In medicine, biofilms can coat medical devices and exist within the body. Because they possess unique characteristics, such as increased resistance against the immune system and to antimicrobial drugs, biofilms are of particular interest to microbiologists and clinicians alike.

Because biofilms are thick, they cannot be observed very well using light microscopy; slicing a biofilm to create a thinner specimen might kill or disturb the microbial community. Confocal microscopy provides clearer images of biofilms because it can focus on one z-plane at a time and produce a three-dimensional image of a thick specimen. Fluorescent dyes can be helpful in identifying cells within the matrix. Additionally, techniques such as immunofluorescence and fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH), in which fluorescent probes are used to bind to DNA, can be used.

Electron microscopy can be used to observe biofilms, but only after dehydrating the specimen, which produces undesirable artifacts and distorts the specimen. In addition to these approaches, it is possible to follow water currents through the shapes (such as cones and mushrooms) of biofilms, using video of the movement of fluorescently coated beads.

In this image, multiple species of bacteria grow in a biofilm on stainless steel (stained with DAPI for epifluorescence miscroscopy). (credit: Ricardo Murga, Rodney Donlan)

Source:

Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology


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