Adhesion of Pathogens


Glycocalyx produced by bacteria in a biofilm allows the cells to adhere to host tissues and to medical devices such as the catheter surface shown here. (credit: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

Following the initial exposure, the pathogen adheres at the portal of entry. The term adhesion refers to the capability of pathogenic microbes to attach to the cells of the body using adhesion factors, and different pathogens use various mechanisms to adhere to the cells of host tissues.

Molecules (either proteins or carbohydrates) called adhesins are found on the surface of certain pathogens and bind to specific receptors (glycoproteins) on host cells. Adhesins are present on the fimbriae and flagella of bacteria, the cilia of protozoa, and the capsids or membranes of viruses. Protozoans can also use hooks and barbs for adhesion; spike proteins on viruses also enhance viral adhesion. The production of glycocalyces (slime layers and capsules), with their high sugar and protein content, can also allow certain bacterial pathogens to attach to cells.

Biofilm growth can also act as an adhesion factor. A biofilm is a community of bacteria that produce a glycocalyx, known as extrapolymeric substance (EPS), that allows the biofilm to attach to a surface. Persistent Pseudomonas aeruginosa infections are common in patients suffering from cystic fibrosis, burn wounds, and middle-ear infections (otitis media) because P. aeruginosa produces a biofilm. The EPS allows the bacteria to adhere to the host cells and makes it harder for the host to physically remove the pathogen. The EPS not only allows for attachment but provides protection against the immune system and antibiotic treatments, preventing antibiotics from reaching the bacterial cells within the biofilm. In addition, not all bacteria in a biofilm are rapidly growing; some are in stationary phase. Since antibiotics are most effective against rapidly growing bacteria, portions of bacteria in a biofilm are protected against antibiotics.


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

0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments