Background: Group A streptococcus (GAS) commonly colonizes the oropharynx and nonintact skin. However, colonization has been little studied and the role of biofilm formation is unclear, as biofilm experiments to date have not been conducted under conditions that mimic the host environment.
Methods: In this study we grew GAS biofilms on human keratinocytes under various environmental conditions and used this model to evaluate colonization, invasive disease and natural transformation.
Results: GAS grown on epithelial cells, but not biofilms grown on abiotic surfaces, produced biofilms with characteristics similar to in vivo colonization. These biofilm bacteria showed a 100-fold higher bacterial burden of nasal-associated lymphoid tissue in mice than broth-grown bacteria, and were not virulent during septic infection, which was attributed in part to down-regulation of genes typically involved in localized and invasive disease. We also showed for the first time that GAS were naturally transformable when grown in biofilms and during colonization of NALT in vivo.
Conclusions: These findings provide novel model systems to study biofilm formation of GAS in vitro and in vivo, suggest an important role for biofilm formation during GAS colonization, and provide an explanation for the known genome diversity within the GAS population.