Bacteria are often social creatures. Suspended in colonies of varying shapes and sizes, these microbes communicate with their brethren and even other bacterial species — interactions that can sometimes make them more deadly or more resistant to antibiotics.
Now, bacterial colonies sculpted into custom shapes by a 3-D printer could be a key to understanding how some antibiotic-resistant infections develop. The new technique uses methods similar to those employed by commercial 3-D printers, which extrude plastic, to create gelatin-based bacterial breeding grounds. These microbial condos can be carved into almost any three-dimensional shape, including pyramids and nested spheres. This 3-D-printing technique could be used to investigate questions like "how many bacteria have to be clustered together, and in what size and what shape, in order for that microcolony to start acting differently than the cells do on their own," said study researcher Jason Shear, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Texas at Austin.
Bacterial clustering is important precisely because bacteria bunched together often act differently than a single cell on its own. In some cases, bacteria even cement themselves together and onto surfaces with a gluelike substance, creating biofilms that are stubbornly resistant to antibiotics or the immune system. The plaque dentists scrape off your teeth is a biofilm that can contain dozens of interacting bacterial types, Shear told LiveScience.
More deadly are the biofilms that gather in the lungs of patients with the respiratory disease cystic fibrosis. Antibiotics can halt scattered bacteria that cause lung infections in these patients, but persistent biofilms on the lung tissue lurk, waiting to spit out new bacterial vagabonds. The result, Shear said, is a cycle of infection and treatment that is often fatal for the patient. On average, people with cystic fibrosis live to just their mid-30s, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Understanding biofilms and other bacterial communities is crucial for learning how to breach bacterial defenses, but "really, technologies just haven't been there," Shear said.