Most bacteria live in the form of adherent communities forming three-dimensional material anchored to artificial or biological surfaces, with profound impact on many human activities. Biofilms are recognized as complex systems but their physical properties have been mainly studied from a macroscopic perspective. To determine biofilm local mechanical properties, reveal their potential heterogeneity, and investigate their relation to molecular traits, we have developed a seemingly new microrheology approach based on magnetic particle infiltration in growing biofilms. Using magnetic tweezers, we achieved what was, to our knowledge, the first three-dimensional mapping of the viscoelastic parameters on biofilms formed by the bacterium Escherichia coli. We demonstrate that its mechanical profile may exhibit elastic compliance values spread over three orders of magnitude in a given biofilm. We also prove that heterogeneity strongly depends on external conditions such as growth shear stress. Using strains genetically engineered to produce well-characterized cell surface adhesins, we show that the mechanical profile of biofilm is exquisitely sensitive to the expression of different surface appendages such as F pilus or curli. These results provide a quantitative view of local mechanical properties within intact biofilms and open up an additional avenue for elucidating the emergence and fate of the different microenvironments within these living materials.
Copyright © 2012 Biophysical Society. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.