Physiological heterogeneity in biofilms

Nat Rev Microbiol. 2008 Mar;6(3):199-210. doi: 10.1038/nrmicro1838.


Biofilms contain bacterial cells that are in a wide range of physiological states. Within a biofilm population, cells with diverse genotypes and phenotypes that express distinct metabolic pathways, stress responses and other specific biological activities are juxtaposed. The mechanisms that contribute to this genetic and physiological heterogeneity include microscale chemical gradients, adaptation to local environmental conditions, stochastic gene expression and the genotypic variation that occurs through mutation and selection. Here, we discuss the processes that generate chemical gradients in biofilms, the genetic and physiological responses of the bacteria as they adapt to these gradients and the techniques that can be used to visualize and measure the microscale physiological heterogeneities of bacteria in biofilms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Autoradiography
  • Bacteria* / genetics
  • Bacteria* / growth & development
  • Bacteria* / metabolism
  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena*
  • Biofilms / growth & development*
  • Cell Membrane Permeability
  • DNA, Bacterial / analysis
  • DNA, Bacterial / biosynthesis
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial
  • Genes, Reporter
  • Genetic Variation
  • Histological Techniques
  • In Situ Hybridization, Fluorescence
  • Lasers
  • Microradiography
  • Oxidation-Reduction


  • DNA, Bacterial