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University of Basel

Cholera bacteria form aggressive biofilm to kill immune cells

Fluorescence microscopic image of the cholera pathogen and macrophages
The cholera-pathogen Vibrio cholerae (blue) forms an aggressive biofilm on the surface of immune cells (red). (Image: University of Basel, Biozentrum)

Bacteria harness the power of communities. A research group at the University of Basel has now discovered that the bacterial pathogen that causes cholera forms a novel type of bacterial community on immune cells: an aggressive biofilm that is lethal for the cells. The study, recently published in the journal Cell, provides new insights into the infection strategies of pathogens.

12 June 2023 | Katrin B├╝hler, Heike Sacher

Fluorescence microscopic image of the cholera pathogen and macrophages
The cholera-pathogen Vibrio cholerae (blue) forms an aggressive biofilm on the surface of immune cells (red). (Image: University of Basel, Biozentrum)

Many bacteria adopt a fascinating defense strategy by forming communities on surfaces, known as biofilms. We encounter such biofilms in our daily lives, for example, as dental plaque in the mouth, slimy films on stones in water or even as part of our intestinal flora. Bacterial biofilms are intrinsically tolerant to antibiotics and can pose a significant threat in clinical settings when they colonize implants, catheters, or surgical instruments. This colonization enables pathogens to infiltrate our body and trigger infections that are difficult to combat by the immune system and with antibiotics.

Previously, it was assumed that bacteria form biofilms to defend and protect themselves. The research team led by Professor Knut Drescher at the Biozentrum, University of Basel, has now demonstrated, in their recently published “Cell” study, that bacteria form biofilms on the surface of immune cells. This previously unknown type of community differs from already known bacterial biofilms not only in its structure, but also in its function: instead of serving a protective purpose, this biofilm is an aggressive trait.

Meshwork rather than typical slimy matrix

Drescher’s team has discovered this novel type of biofilm in the cholera-causing pathogen Vibrio cholerae. This bacterium colonizes various immune cells in the human host.

Cholera is a life-threatening infectious disease that causes severe diarrhea. As humans are the only host of the cholera-pathogen, the scientists established a human intestinal organoid model. Using this model, they could demonstrate that Vibrio cholerae is able to form lethal biofilms on macrophages after colonizing and disrupting the human intestinal barrier.

“This novel strategy of attack, employed by the bacteria, can significantly affect the progression of the cholera infection,” adds Knut Drescher. "In a next step, we aim to explore whether other pathogens also form such aggressive biofilms. Deciphering the strategies of bacterial pathogens is crucial for the development of new approaches to fight them."


Original publication

Lucia Vidakovic et al.
Biofilm formation on human immune cells is a multicellular predation strategy of Vibrio cholerae.
Cell (2023), doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2023.05.008

NCCR AntiResist

The study is part of the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) "AntiResist" and was conducted in collaboration with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. The aim of this research network is the discovery of new antibiotics and the development of novel strategies to combat antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
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