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Appl Environ Microbiol. 2009 Jun;75(12):4093-100. doi: 10.1128/AEM.02949-08. Epub 2009 Apr 17.

Increased antibiotic resistance of Escherichia coli in mature biofilms.

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Department of Urban and Environmental Engineering, Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan.


Biofilms are considered to be highly resistant to antimicrobial agents. Several mechanisms have been proposed to explain this high resistance of biofilms, including restricted penetration of antimicrobial agents into biofilms, slow growth owing to nutrient limitation, expression of genes involved in the general stress response, and emergence of a biofilm-specific phenotype. However, since combinations of these factors are involved in most biofilm studies, it is still difficult to fully understand the mechanisms of biofilm resistance to antibiotics. In this study, the antibiotic susceptibility of Escherichia coli cells in biofilms was investigated with exclusion of the effects of the restricted penetration of antimicrobial agents into biofilms and the slow growth owing to nutrient limitation. Three different antibiotics, ampicillin (100 microg/ml), kanamycin (25 microg/ml), and ofloxacin (10 microg/ml), were applied directly to cells in the deeper layers of mature biofilms that developed in flow cells after removal of the surface layers of the biofilms. The results of the antibiotic treatment analyses revealed that ofloxacin and kanamycin were effective against biofilm cells, whereas ampicillin did not kill the cells, resulting in regrowth of the biofilm after the ampicillin treatment was discontinued. LIVE/DEAD staining revealed that a small fraction of resistant cells emerged in the deeper layers of the mature biofilms and that these cells were still alive even after 24 h of ampicillin treatment. Furthermore, to determine which genes in the biofilm cells are induced, allowing increased resistance to ampicillin, global gene expression was analyzed at different stages of biofilm formation, the attachment, colony formation, and maturation stages. The results showed that significant changes in gene expression occurred during biofilm formation, which were partly induced by rpoS expression. Based on the experimental data, it is likely that the observed resistance of biofilms can be attributed to formation of ampicillin-resistant subpopulations in the deeper layers of mature biofilms but not in young colony biofilms and that the production and resistance of the subpopulations were aided by biofilm-specific phenotypes, like slow growth and induction of rpoS-mediated stress responses.

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