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Synergistic effects in mixed Escherichia coli biofilms:conjugative plasmid transfer drives biofilm expansion

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Abstract

Bacterial biofilms, often composed of multiple species and genetically distinct strains, develop under complex influences of cell-cell interactions. Although detailed knowledge about the mechanisms underlying formation of single-species laboratory biofilms has emerged, little is known about the pathways governing development of more complex heterogeneous communities. In this study, we established a laboratory model where biofilm-stimulating effects due to interactions between genetically diverse strains of Escherichia coli were monitored. Synergistic induction of biofilm formation resulting from the cocultivation of 403 undomesticated E. coli strains with a characterized E. coli K-12 strain was detected at a significant frequency. The survey suggests that different mechanisms underlie the observed stimulation, yet synergistic development of biofilm within the subset of E. coli isolates (n = 56) exhibiting the strongest effects was most often linked to conjugative transmission of natural plasmids carried by the E. coli isolates (70%). Thus, the capacity of an isolate to promote the biofilm through cocultivation was (i) transferable to the K-12 strain, (ii) was linked with the acquisition of conjugation genes present initially in the isolate, and (iii) was inhibited through the presence in the cocultured K-12 strain of a related conjugative plasmid, presumably due to surface exclusion functions. Synergistic effects of cocultivation of pairs of natural isolates were also observed, demonstrating that biofilm promotion in this system is not dependent on the laboratory strain and that the described model system could provide relevant insights on mechanisms of biofilm development in natural E. coli populations.

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