The researchers tested the synthetic polymers for their ability to induce biofilm formation in a strain of E. coli (MC4100) known to be weak in forming biofilms. They also monitored the biomass and biocatalytic activity of both MC4100 and PHL644 (good biofilm formation), incubated in the presence of these polymers, and found that MC4100 matched and even outperformed PHL644. Credit: EzumeImages

Birmingham scientists have revealed a new method to increase the efficiency of biocatalysis in a paper published today in Materials Horizons.

Biocatalysis uses enzymes, cells or microbes to catalyze chemical reactions and is used in settings such as the food and chemical industries to produce products that are not available through chemical synthesis. It can produce pharmaceuticals, fine chemicals or food ingredients on an industrial scale.

However, a major challenge in biocatalysis is that the most commonly used microbes, such as probiotics and non-pathogenic strains of Escherichia coli, are not necessarily good at forming biofilms, growth-promoting ecosystems that form a protective micro-environment around microbial communities and enhance their resilience and thereby increase productivity.

This problem is usually solved through genetic engineering, but researchers Dr. Tim Overton of the university’s School of Chemical Engineering and Dr. Francisco Fern├índez Trillo of the School of Chemistry, both members of the Institute of Microbiology and Infection, set out to create an alternative method to bypass this expensive and time-consuming process.

The researchers identified a library of synthetic polymers and screened them for their ability to induce biofilm formation in E. coli, a bacterium that is one of the most widely studied microorganisms and frequently used in biocatalysis.

This screening used an E. coli strain (MC4100) that is widely used in basic science for gene and protein studies and is known to be poor in biofilm formation, and compared it with another E. coli strain PHL644, an isogenic strain obtained by evolution that is a good biofilm former.

This screening revealed the chemicals best suited to stimulate biofilm formation. Hydrophobic polymers slightly outperform cationic polymers, with aromatic and heteroaromatic derivatives performing much better than equivalent aliphatic polymers.

The researchers then monitored the biomass and biocatalytic activity of the two strains incubated in the presence of these polymers and found that MC4100 matched and even outperformed PHL644.

Additional studies are investigating how the polymers drive these profound increases in activity. Here, the research shows that the polymers settle in solution and act as coagulants, stimulating a natural process called flocculation that triggers bacteria to form biofilms.

Dr. Fern├índez-Trillo said: “We explored a wide chemical space and identified the most effective chemicals and polymers that enhance the biocatalytic activity of E. coli, a workhorse in biotechnology. This has led to a small library of synthetic polymers that increase biofilm formation when used as simple additives to a microbial culture. To our knowledge, there are currently no methods that provide this simplicity and flexibility in promoting biofilms for beneficial bacteria.”

“These synthetic polymers can bypass the need to introduce biofilm-forming traits through gene editing, which is expensive, time-consuming, irreversible, and requires a skilled microbiologist to implement. We believe this approach has implications beyond biofilms for biocatalysis. A similar strategy can be used to identify candidate polymers for other microorganisms such as probiotics or yeast and to develop new applications in food science, agriculture, bioremediation or health.”

University of Birmingham Enterprise has applied for a patent for the method and polymer additives and is now looking for commercial licensing partners.

New synthetic polymers could lead to higher yields for farmers

More info:
Pavan Adoni et al, Polymer-induced biofilms for enhanced biocatalysis, Materials Horizons (2022). DOI: 10.1039/D2MH00607C

Courtesy of the University of Birmingham

Quote: A new method to promote biofilm formation and increase the efficiency of biocatalysis (2022, August 1), retrieved August 1, 2022 from

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