The development of bacterial biofilms on surfaces leads to hospital-acquired infections that are difficult to fight. In Staphylococci, the cationic polysaccharide intercellular adhesin (PIA) forms an extracellular matrix that connects the cells together during biofilm formation, but the molecular forces involved are unknown. Here, we use advanced force nanoscopy techniques to unravel the mechanism of PIA-mediated adhesion in a clinically relevant methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) strain. Nanoscale multiparametric imaging of the structure, adhesion, and elasticity of bacteria expressing PIA shows that the cells are surrounded by a soft and adhesive matrix of extracellular polymers. Cell surface softness and adhesion are dramatically reduced in mutant cells deficient for the synthesis of PIA or under unfavorable growth conditions. Single-cell force spectroscopy demonstrates that PIA promotes cell-cell adhesion via the multivalent electrostatic interaction with polyanionic teichoic acids on the S. aureus cell surface. This binding mechanism rationalizes, at the nanoscale, the well-known ability of PIA to strengthen intercellular adhesion in staphylococcal biofilms. Force nanoscopy offers promising prospects for understanding the fundamental forces in antibiotic-resistant biofilms and for designing anti-adhesion compounds targeting matrix polymers.
Keywords: Staphylococcus aureus; adhesion forces; atomic force microscopy; biofilm matrix; polysaccharide intercellular adhesin.