Montana State University researchers unveil 3D printing technology that could advance biofilm science


When bacteria and other microbes adhere to surfaces and create slimy mats, called biofilms, they form complex communities that are often resistant to traditional disinfectants. Now scientists from Montana State University (USM) Biofilm Engineering Center are developing a microbial mosaic replication tool to study innovative treatments.

“We are excited to share early glimpses of this technology,” said Isaak Thornton, who is earning his PhD in mechanical engineering. Thornton, along with Kathryn Zimlich, PhD student in microbiology, presented their work at the Montana Biofilm Annual Meeting in Bozeman from July 12-14, which brings together researchers and industry partners from around the world to discuss the latest scientific advances. in terms of biofilm.

Over the past two years, Zimlich and Thornton have designed and tested a 3D printing device capable of precisely arranging a grid of individual bacteria into a hydrogel, a transparent jelly-like substance.

Taking advantage of advances in 3D printing, researchers can map microbes in drops of liquid hydrogel resin, then use laser light to solidify the material, building a rudimentary biofilm.

“We can spatially organize and encapsulate cells exactly where we want them,” said Thornton, who is leading the research in the lab of Jim Wilking, an associate professor in MSU’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering.

So far, Zimlich and Thornton have only used one species of bacteria, but by using the 3D printer to make multiple passes, each with a different species or strain of bacteria, they could start creating the biofilms. more complex and layered than found in nature.

By adding a fluorescent dye to bacteria, researchers can easily see the microbes using specialized microscopes, allowing them to study the interactions that occur between cells.

“Even the simplest biofilm systems are complicated,” Zimlich said. “It’s like a forest where there is a lot of diversity. We needed new tools to see how this diversity develops and is maintained.

MSU Regents Professor and long-time biofilm researcher Phil Stewart has shown that a bacterium that commonly causes dangerous wound infections will resist antibiotics because cells in the lower level of the biofilm are cut off from oxygen and other compounds, rendering them inactive. and thus changing their biology enough for the drug to be rendered ineffective.

“One thing that’s becoming clearer is that it’s possible to treat these pathogenic bacteria by changing the interactive biofilm environment instead of trying to use harsh chemicals,” said Zimlich, whose research adviser is Matthew Fields, director of the Center for Biofilm Engineering.

Developing these treatments will require extensive testing in a controlled laboratory environment, where the new 3D printing tool comes into play. “We believe it is possible to construct analogues of how these pathogenic biofilms form naturally said Zimlich.

This is potentially of great interest to attendees of the biofilm meeting. Companies like Procter and Gamble, 3M and Ecolab, as well as NASA, are eager to develop new ways to effectively control problematic biofilms, according to Paul Sturman, who coordinates the center’s work with its roughly 30 industry partners.

“It’s really about helping them develop useful products,” Sturman said. “The meeting is a great way for our members to keep up to date with the latest biofilm research. And we can showcase the work we are doing and are able to do.”

In the UK in January 2020, researchers from the University of Sheffield used biofilm research to create antibacterial 3D-printed parts, which could potentially stop the spread of infections in hospitals and care homes.

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