Modelling sheds new light on bacteria behaviour

10 Jan 2017



A new study into how bacteria move, behave, and form colonies could allow a better understanding of infections, and pave the way to new antimicrobial treatments.

For their paper, published today in the New Journal of Physics, the interdisciplinary team from the Max Planck Institute and Helmholtz-Center, Dresden, and from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, used multiscale computer modelling of the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacteria to reveal how bacteria use pili – hair-like structures extending from the bacteria’s surface – to spread the infection by self-assembling into microcolonies and, eventually, biofilms

Biofilms are complex bacterial communities that form on various surfaces. They are of major concern in medical and engineering applications, as bacterial infections involving them are often much less responsive to antimicrobial treatments. Understanding and controlling the formation of biofilms is an interdisciplinary problem, requiring input from microbiology, engineering, chemistry and biophysics.

Lead author Wolfram Poenisch, from the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, said: “Neisseria gonorrhoeae is the cause of one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases – gonorrhoea. Over the past 20 years, there has been an alarming increase in reported gonorrhoea cases where the bacteria were resistant to the most commonly-used antibiotics. This shows a clear need for new antimicrobial treatments.”

“Our study aimed to discover how the pili govern the formation and dynamics of these microcolonies, which is still not well understood. N. gonorrhoeae relies on pili to move, and form microcolonies consisting of several thousand cells, which made it an ideal model.”

Co-author Dr Vasily Zaburdaev said: “To our knowledge, this is the first computational model of microcolonies consisting of single cells interacting mechanically via individual pili. The pili’s force generation drives a wide range of processes for N. gonorrhoeae bacteria, including the formation of larger colonies via the interactions of smaller ones.

“Understanding this could lead to a better knowledge of the gonorrhoea infection, as the microcolonies of N. gonorrhoeae are the infectious units of the disease. Hopefully, this work will enable the development of new ways to control the formation of colonies and limit the spread of the infection.

“Our model can also be applied to other bacteria, including N. meningitidis – the bacteria that may cause meningitis – so we may be able to discover how that bacteria behaves and, potentially, work towards new and more effective treatments for it as well.”