Free-floating microbial cells that live in an aquatic environment are called planktonic cells. The formation of a biofilm essentially involves the attachment of planktonic cells to a substrate, where they become sessile (attached to a surface). This occurs in stages, as depicted in the image above. The first stage involves the attachment of planktonic cells to a surface coated with a conditioning film of organic material. At this point, attachment to the substrate is reversible, but as cells express new phenotypes that facilitate the formation of EPS, they transition from a planktonic to a sessile lifestyle. The biofilm develops characteristic structures, including an extensive matrix and water channels. Appendages such as fimbriae, pili, and flagella interact with the EPS, and microscopy and genetic analysis suggest that such structures are required for the establishment of a mature biofilm. In the last stage of the biofilm life cycle, cells on the periphery of the biofilm revert to a planktonic lifestyle, sloughing off the mature biofilm to colonize new sites. This stage is referred to as dispersal.
Within a biofilm, different species of microorganisms establish metabolic collaborations in which the waste product of one organism becomes the nutrient for another. For example, aerobic microorganisms consume oxygen, creating anaerobic regions that promote the growth of anaerobes. This occurs in many polymicrobial infections that involve both aerobic and anaerobic pathogens.
The mechanism by which cells in a biofilm coordinate their activities in response to environmental stimuli is called quorum sensing. Quorum sensing—which can occur between cells of different species within a biofilm—enables microorganisms to detect their cell density through the release and binding of small, diffusible molecules called autoinducers. When the cell population reaches a critical threshold (a quorum), these autoinducers initiate a cascade of reactions that activate genes associated with cellular functions that are beneficial only when the population reaches a critical density. For example, in some pathogens, synthesis of virulence factors only begins when enough cells are present to overwhelm the immune defenses of the host. Although mostly studied in bacterial populations, quorum sensing takes place between bacteria and eukaryotes and between eukaryotic cells such as the fungus Candida albicans, a common member of the human microbiota that can cause infections in immunocompromised individuals.
The signaling molecules in quorum sensing belong to two major classes. Gram-negative bacteria communicate mainly using N-acylated homoserine lactones, whereas gram-positive bacteria mostly use small peptides. In all cases, the first step in quorum sensing consists of the binding of the autoinducer to its specific receptor only when a threshold concentration of signaling molecules is reached. Once binding to the receptor takes place, a cascade of signaling events leads to changes in gene expression. The result is the activation of biological responses linked to quorum sensing, notably an increase in the production of signaling molecules themselves, hence the term autoinducer.
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