https://innovateuk.blog.gov.uk/2016/03/21/the-management-and-use-of-biofilms/

The management and use of biofilms

This blog was co-written by Lee Beniston, Senior Manager of Bioscience Tools, Technologies and Emerging Industries, BBSRC. You can follow Lee on Twitter: @BenistonBBSRC

Biofilms can be found everywhere

Biofilms are as versatile and challenging as they are ubiquitous; they (and their effects!) can be found everywhere, such as:

  • within the drum and seals of your washing machine (a cause of unpleasant odours)
  • on mostly all interior and exterior surfaces including:
    • oil pipes
    • ship hulls
    • offshore energy infrastructure and plumbing
    • intravenous tubing
    • catheters and implants: in these cases, biofilms are often the cause of serious infections and corrosion

So what is a biofilm?

Electron microscopy image of a Staphylococcus aureus biofilm on the surface of a catheter
Electron microscopy image of a Staphylococcus aureus biofilm on the surface of a catheter

A biofilm is any group of microorganisms, in natural and artificial environments, that stick to each other or adhere to surfaces (living and inorganic) in a self-secreted slime. The slime, known as an Extracellular Polymeric Substance (EPS), consists of DNA, proteins and polysaccharides. The microorganisms of the biofilm communicate and interact with each other; this enables them to use the EPS layer as a critical protective mechanism against a range of existential threats.

Watch this video of an amusing and illustrative take on biofilms from Newcastle University.

Searching for more targeted biofilm management

Traditional approaches to biofilm management have focused on the use of harsh chemicals such as:

  • bleach or other powerful disinfectants
  • “low-tech” labour-intensive physical removal of biofilms with abrasive materials
  • discarding biofilm-coated piping or tubing

These are often expensive, laborious, time-consuming and ineffective solutions. These approaches are also now being limited by a developing regulatory climate; thus, the search for novel, more targeted, and less harmful approaches is now a priority.

Biofilms can produce useful materials

Biofilms and their unique characteristics can also be harnessed for a range of beneficial uses which have huge economic and societal significance, including:

  • production of useful materials, in novel ways
  • enhancing industrial processes, such as water treatment and non-sterile manufacturing

Building on recent advances in the study of biofilms

In 2015, following a strategic review of the biofilms research sector by Innovate UK and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), a joint Innovate UK-BBSRC funding competition was launched entitled “The Management and Use of Biofilms”.

This sought to fund innovative projects with the aim of either developing novel solutions for biofilm prevention and disruption, or, harnessing biofilms for useful industrial applications.

The aims of this competition were to build on recent advances in the study of biofilms and to catalyse further investment in this area.

These advances have enabled researchers to study and manipulate biofilms in advanced ways, enabling the development of new technologies to manage and utilise biofilms. Examples of these advances include:

New technologies to manage and utilise biofilms

The diversity of industry sectors with an interest in biofilms technologies was reflected in the 22 industry-led projects which were successful in the biofilms competition and which will be receiving £1.5 million in funding from Innovate UK and the BBSRC.

This included projects from the following industries:

  • healthcare
  • manufacturing
  • consumer goods
  • food and drink
  • water treatment
  • marine industries

The projects range from novel biofilm disruption technologies for healthcare and consumer goods applications, to modelling bio-fouling of ship hulls, to harnessing algal biofilms to improve the production of a food supplement.

Find further information about The Management and Use of Biofilms competition projects.

Acknowledgements

This blog was co-written by Lee Beniston, Senior Manager of Bioscience Tools, Technologies and Emerging Industries, BBSRC. You can follow Lee on Twitter: @BenistonBBSRC

With grateful thanks to Nick Jakubovics at Newcastle University for some useful insights.

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