The polymer physics and chemistry of microbial cell attachment and adhesion

The attachment of microbial cells to solid substrata is a primary ecological strategy for the survival of species and the development of specific activity and function within communities. An hypothesis arising from a biological sciences perspective may be stated as follows:

The attachment of microbes to interfaces is controlled by the macromolecular structure of the cell wall and the functional genes that are induced for its biological synthesis.

Following logically from this is the view that diverse attached cell behaviour is mediated by the physical and chemical interactions of these macromolecules in the interfacial region and with other cells. This aspect can be reduced to its simplest form by treating physico-chemical interactions as colloidal forces acting between an isolated cell and a solid or pseudo solid substratum. These forces can be analysed by established methods rooted in DLVO (Derjaguin, Landau, Verwey and Overbeek) theory. Such a methodology provides little insight into what governs changes in the behaviour of the cell wall attached to surfaces, or indeed other cells. Nor does it shed any light on the expulsion of macromolecules that modify the interface such as formation of slime layers. These physical and chemical problems must be treated at the more fundamental level of the structure and behaviour of the individual components of the cell wall, for example biosurfactants and extracellular polysaccharides. This allows us to restate the above hypothesis in physical sciences terms:

Cell attachment and related cell growth behaviour is mediated by macromolecular physics and chemistry in the interfacial environment. Ecological success depends on the genetic potential to favourably influence the interface through adaptation of the macromolecular structure.

We present research that merges these two perspectives. This is achieved by quantifying attached cell growth for genetically diverse model organisms, building chemical models that capture the variations in interfacial structure and quantifying the resulting physical interactions. Experimental observations combine aqueous chemistry techniques with surface spectroscopy in order to elucidate the cell wall structure. Atomic force microscopy methods quantify the physical interactions between the solid substrata and key components of the cell wall such as macromolecular biosurfactants. Our current approach focuses on considering individually mycolic acids or longer chain polymers harvested from cells, as well as characterised whole cells. This approach allows us to use a multifactorial approach to address the relative impact of the individual components of the cell wall in contact with model surfaces. We then combine these components to increase complexity step-wise, while comparing with the behaviour of entire cells. Eventually, such an approach should allow us to estimate and understand the primary factors governing microbial cell adhesion.

Although the work addresses the cell–mineral interface at a fundamental level, the research is driven by a range of technology needs. The initial rationale was improved prediction of contaminant degradation in natural environments (soils, sediments, aquifers) for environmental cleanup. However, this area of research addresses a wide range of biotechnology areas including improved understanding of pathogen survival (e.g., in surgical environments), better process intensification in biomanufacturing (biofilm technologies) and new product development.