Biofilms are a ubiquitous, resilient form of microbial life. They can form where liquids and solids meet, like around a knee replacement; where air and liquid meet, like in the lungs; and where oil and water meet, like in an oil spill on the ocean.
Because of this extreme versatility, the mechanism of how they grow and adapt to different environments is not yet well understood. But a better grasp of how biofilms can grow and adapt to different environments would not only help mitigate their deleterious health effects but also put them to work for us.
Tagbo Niepa, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, recently received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation for this work. The $663,372, five-year funding will enable his lab to further explore how bacteria cope with changes in surface tension and energy, as well as their adaptation to changing conditions to develop new materials. The research also seeks to understand how viruses and nanomaterials could be used to control bacterial development at fluid interfaces.
“When biofilms form on solid-liquid interfaces, they can cause health problems like infections near joint implants, and when they form at air-liquid interfaces, they can cause lung problems,” explained Niepa. “But their resilience can also be harnessed to develop more effective treatments for crude oil spills, for example, using bacteria.”
Niepa’s previous work has shown that certain bacteria secrete a protective film that allows them to thrive in harsh conditions and stick together, much in the same way that sushi rice is able to stick together while basmati rice is not. A recent paper published in ACS Applied Bio Materials (DOI: 10.1021/acsabm.1c01198) looks at different strains of the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which often colonizes the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients. The research shows that the microbes with the ability to form a mucoid film have a stronger resistance to environmental stress, making them more resilient.
The CAREER Award will allow Niepa to further explore different microbes’ ability to metabolize a patch of interface and secrete a protective coating.
“The physicochemical mechanisms behind microbial growth in biofilms is still not fully understood, in part because their ability to respond to diverse environmental conditions is extremely versatile. And we understand biofilm formation at the fluid interface even less,” said Niepa. “A better comprehension of these interfacial phenomena associated with microorganisms will ultimately be relevant for a broad range of applications.”
In addition, the award will also allow Niepa to engage under-represented minority, first-generation and financially challenged pre-college and college students through a range of mentored experiences, including a “Bugs as Materials” Camp, a college application workshop, and an international summer experience for undergraduates.