Clinically, biofilm-associated infections commonly form on intravascular catheters and other hydrogel surfaces. The overuse of antibiotics to treat these infections has led to the spread of antibiotic resistance and underscores the importance of developing alternative strategies that delay the onset of biofilm formation. Previously, it has been reported that during surface contact, bacteria can detect surfaces through subtle changes in the function of their motors. However, how the stiffness of a polymer hydrogel influences the initial attachment of bacteria is unknown. Systematically, we investigated poly(ethylene glycol) dimethacrylate (PEGDMA) and agar hydrogels that were 20 times thicker than the cumulative size of bacterial cell appendages, as a function of Young's moduli. Soft (44.05-308.5 kPa), intermediate (1495-2877 kPa), and stiff (5152-6489 kPa) hydrogels were synthesized. Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus attachment onto the hydrogels was analyzed using confocal microscopy after 2 and 24 h incubation periods. Independent of hydrogel chemistry and incubation time, E. coli and S. aureus attachment correlated positively to increasing hydrogel stiffness. For example, after a 24 h incubation period, there were 52 and 82% fewer E. coli adhered to soft PEGDMA hydrogels than to the intermediate and stiff PEGDMA hydrogels, respectively. A 62 and 79% reduction in the area coverage by the Gram-positive microbe S. aureus occurred after 24 h incubation on the soft versus intermediate and stiff PEGDMA hydrogels. We suggest that hydrogel stiffness is an easily tunable variable that could potentially be used synergistically with traditional antimicrobial strategies to reduce early bacterial adhesion and therefore the occurrence of biofilm-associated infections.
Keywords: Escherichia coli; Staphylococcus aureus; Young’s moduli; biofilm; hydrogel; poly(ethylene glycol).