Stress relaxation analysis facilitates a quantitative approach towards antimicrobial penetration into biofilms

PLoS One. 2013 May 27;8(5):e63750. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0063750. Print 2013.


Biofilm-related infections can develop everywhere in the human body and are rarely cleared by the host immune system. Moreover, biofilms are often tolerant to antimicrobials, due to a combination of inherent properties of bacteria in their adhering, biofilm mode of growth and poor physical penetration of antimicrobials through biofilms. Current understanding of biofilm recalcitrance toward antimicrobial penetration is based on qualitative descriptions of biofilms. Here we hypothesize that stress relaxation of biofilms will relate with antimicrobial penetration. Stress relaxation analysis of single-species oral biofilms grown in vitro identified a fast, intermediate and slow response to an induced deformation, corresponding with outflow of water and extracellular polymeric substances, and bacterial re-arrangement, respectively. Penetration of chlorhexidine into these biofilms increased with increasing relative importance of the slow and decreasing importance of the fast relaxation element. Involvement of slow relaxation elements suggests that biofilm structures allowing extensive bacterial re-arrangement after deformation are more open, allowing better antimicrobial penetration. Involvement of fast relaxation elements suggests that water dilutes the antimicrobial upon penetration to an ineffective concentration in deeper layers of the biofilm. Next, we collected biofilms formed in intra-oral collection devices bonded to the buccal surfaces of the maxillary first molars of human volunteers. Ex situ chlorhexidine penetration into two weeks old in vivo formed biofilms followed a similar dependence on the importance of the fast and slow relaxation elements as observed for in vitro formed biofilms. This study demonstrates that biofilm properties can be derived that quantitatively explain antimicrobial penetration into a biofilm.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Bacteria / drug effects*
  • Bacteria / growth & development*
  • Biofilms / drug effects*
  • Biofilms / growth & development*
  • Chlorhexidine / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Models, Statistical
  • Mouth / microbiology*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Chlorhexidine

Grant support

The China Scholarship Council and W.J. Kolff Institute, University Medical Center Groningen are gratefully acknowledged for scholarships, enabling this study. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.