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Int Microbiol. 2010 Mar;13(1):1-7.

Biofilms in lab and nature: a molecular geneticist's voyage to microbial ecology.

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Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA.


This article reviews the latest findings on how extracellular signaling controls cell fate determination during the process of biofilm formation by Bacillus subtilis in the artificial setting of the laboratory. To complement molecular genetic approaches, surface-associated communities in settings as diverse as the pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea and the human lung were investigated. The study of the pitcher plant revealed that the presence or absence of a mosquito larva in the pitcher plant controlled bacterial diversity in the ecosystem inside the pitcher plant. Through the analysis of the respiratory tract microbiota of humans suffering from cystic fibrosis (CF) a correlation between lung function and bacterial community diversity was found. Those that had lungs in good condition had also more diverse communities, whereas patients harboring Pseudomonas aeruginosa-the predominant CF pathogen-in their lungs had less diverse communities. Further studies focused on interspecies and intraspecies relationships at the molecular level in search for signaling molecules that would promote biofilm formation. Two molecules were found that induced biofilm formation in B. subtilis: nystatin-released by other species-and surfactin-released by B. subtilis itself. This is a role not previously known for two molecules that were known for other activities-nystatin as an antifungal and surfactin as a surfactant. In addition, surfactin was found to also trigger cannibalism under starvation. This could be a strategy to maintain the population because the cells destroyed serve as nutrients for the rest. The path that led the author to the study of microbial biofilms is also described.

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