credit to Gerard Wong, of the California NanoSystems Institute

credit to Gerard Wong, of the California NanoSystems Institute

by Olivia Zhu

Bacterial biofilms, at first glance, may seem to be spontaneous, random phenomena from which we have no power to protect our environment or ourselves.

They’re potentially useful as an aid to wastewater treatment, but they also cause infections that account for $6 billion a year in health care costs. Biofilms are also more resistant to antibiotic drugs, making them difficult to eradicate.

Dr. Kun Zhao, of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, refuses to see biofilms as arbitrary: he emphasizes the fact that biofilms are communities of bacteria in self-produced polymeric matrices of polysaccharides, and using a biophysical approach, he studies the pattern behind their organization.

Central questions in Zhao’s research include how bacterial colonies transition from reversible to irreversible attachment, how they migrate, and how they ultimately disperse. Specifically, Zhao examines the polysaccharide Psl, which poses a positive feedback loop because it is both secreted by moving bacteria and serves as a chemo-attractant for future bacteria movement. The positive feedback creates an inherent pattern, as bacteria are more likely to visit a location they have been to before.

Zhao and colleagues have also discovered that bacterial mutants that cannot produce Psl exhibit more random and uniform movement.

To better quantify bacterial movement,Zhao has created a computer algorithm that shows the full movement history of each individual bacterium on a dish, and that provides a “search engine” allowing researchers to find every bacterium performing specific life cycle activities, like division.

Zhao has postulated a “rich get richer” mechanism for biofilms. He compares bacterial organization to Wall Street because concentrated movement ensures that some cells become extremely enriched. In the future, he hopes to model colloidal structures for biological problems, like the growth of the bacterial cell wall. Zhao currently uses colloids, which in physics are used as models for atomic systems, to observe how shapes affect self-assembly. He also would like to look at cell-substrate interactions, which are implicated in bacterial territoriality and social interactions.