Patterned Biofilm Formation Reveals a Mechanism for Structural Heterogeneity in Bacterial Biofilms

Bacterial biofilms are ubiquitous and are the major cause of chronic infections in humans and persistent biofouling in industry. Despite the significance of bacterial biofilms, the mechanism of biofilm formation and associated drug tolerance is still not fully understood. A major challenge in biofilm research is the intrinsic heterogeneity in the biofilm structure, which leads to temporal and spatial variation in cell density and gene expression. To understand and control such structural heterogeneity, surfaces with patterned functional alkanthiols were used in this study to obtain <i>Escherichia coli</i> cell clusters with systematically varied cluster size and distance between clusters. The results from quantitative imaging analysis revealed an interesting phenomenon in which multicellular connections can be formed between cell clusters depending on the size of interacting clusters and the distance between them. In addition, significant differences in patterned biofilm formation were observed between wild-type <i>E. coli</i> RP437 and some of its isogenic mutants, indicating that certain cellular and genetic factors are involved in interactions among cell clusters. In particular, autoinducer-2-mediated quorum sensing was found to be important. Collectively, these results provide missing information that links cell-to-cell signaling and interaction among cell clusters to the structural organization of bacterial biofilms.