You may not be aware of the term ‘biofilm,’ but it is something everybody must have experienced or seen. Biofilms are sticky formations such as those on rocks of the river or the plaque on the teeth. So, let’s clearly understand what these biofilms are, their formation, impacts, and treatment.
Biofilms are a group of living and reproducing bacteria. They live in colonies and have a complex social structure that scientists yet couldn’t figure out. They form and grow on their slimy secretion. This slimy secretion of theirs keeps them protected from the host’s community.
Biofilms are likely to develop in any place where they encounter a surface to rest on, some nutrients and moisture. Biofilms are formed when certain types of free-floating microorganisms stick to a surface in moist conditions and start reproducing. The microorganisms stay stuck to the surface by secreting a slimy, glue-like substance called EPS (Extracellular Polymeric Substance). The EPS comprises proteins, sugars, and acids. This slimy substance protects them from the hosts. Biofilms can be formed only from a single kind of microorganism, but they exist in the aggregation of several types of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, protozoa, and certain non-living materials.
They don’t exist individually but in big amalgamations. And since they exist in such huge amalgamations, it becomes very difficult to remove them. They can get formed on almost any kind of surface. For example, on the kitchen counters, plastic pipes, metal, rocks, the walls of the swimming pools, medical implants, etc.
Size Of Biofilms
Biofilms are generally so microscopic that they may go unnoticed. For example, it may be present on your kitchen counter, but you may not be able to see it with your naked eyes. However, the biofilms may grow a few inches thick on surfaces like streamed rocks.
Biofilms And Diseases
As you know by now, biofilms form on any surface that’s wet. But then, even inside the human body, there’s a lot of moisture content. So, do biofilms form inside humans too? And to your sheer surprise, the answer is yes. As per the reports of the National Institutes of Health, over 65% of microbial infections occur due to biofilms. Some common infections include plaque formation, urinary tract infections, catheter infections, etc.
Biofilms can lead to serious medical conditions like kidney stones. These are caused due to urinary tract infections. Urinary tract infections occur when bacteria develop on the urine minerals and other substances.
Another concerning condition caused by biofilms includes endocarditis. This results in inflammation in the inner layers of the heart. It occurs when bacteria and the host settles on a cardiac valve. This may block blood circulation.
Biofilm infections can be extremely stubborn. There may be difficulty in completely removing them from the human body. However, the right doses of antibiotics can help weaken their effect. But it may develop again as the antibiotic penetrates through the biofilm layer and kills bacteria leaving behind cells called persisters. These persisters survive and allow the reformation of biofilms.
However, Dr Kim Lewis of Tulane University suggests a process to eliminate the persisters too. His method involves the usage of low-dose antibiotics. When the lower concentration of antibiotics is given, the biofilm layer is destroyed. And then, when no antibiotic is left, persisters are unable to survive. Thus, biofilm reformation is not encouraged. But this method proves effective for only certain types of biofilms.
Although biofilms are known for the severe medical conditions that they cause and the difficulty in getting rid of them, also, there are certain effective uses of biofilms. For example, biofilms can be used to treat wastewater that is contaminated with heavy metals or radioactive substances. Another great application of biofilms is in microbial fuel cells. In these fuel cells, microbes reside on the surface of the electrode and break the nutrients to transfer electrons through the circuit. This helps produce electricity. Such microbial fuel cells are highly used in remote areas to generate power in landfills and wastewaters.
Biofilms have become the subject of important concern for scientists to research. Every year, industries and individuals face huge losses due to biofilms. Equipment gets damaged, and many get infected with numerous diseases. However, studies are still being conducted to understand their nature.
But until then, we must be careful to stay away from such biofilm infections. We must keep the surfaces at our homes clean. Regularly disinfecting the kitchen counters, sinks and floors may help. Do not consume contaminated products. Try avoiding the use of mouthwashes. And while visiting for dental checkups, be cautious of any injuries. These little steps may help reduce the chances of biofilm development.