A Materials Genome Approach to Understanding Biofilm Mechanics

Project: Research project

Project Details


A Materials Genome Approach to Understanding Biofilm Mechanics
Biofilms are highly evolved, efficient bacterial colonies that exhibit outstanding adhesive
strength once formed on surfaces. The tenacity of biofilms to bind indifferently to substrates is
attributed to the extracellular matrix proteins called functional amyloids, most notably, the curli
nanofibers found in E. coli biofilms. Curli nanofibers regulate matrix elasticity, intercellular
cohesion within the biofilm, and most remarkably, nonspecific adhesion to surfaces. With recent
breakthroughs in genetic engineering of E. coli, it is possible to synthesize biofilms with diverse
functions that are attained by conjugating small peptides onto curli nanofibers. Both natural and
genetically modified curli nanofibers achieve outstanding adhesive and cohesive strength, but the
fundamental mechanism governing this phenomenon is still unknown.
Biofilms are an exciting new frontier in synthetic biology because control of the curli
nanofiber features through genetic engineering serves as an enabling tool to synthesize a new
class of self-assembling protein materials. The bacterial genome is well-characterized and can
now be manipulated to achieve unprecedented adhesive and cohesive properties through rational
design of the extracellular protein networks. However, a number of obstacles exist that hinder
our capability to predict biofilm mechanics in relation to their genetics. First, the molecular
mechanisms through which curli nanofibers achieve outstanding intercellular and interfacial
adhesion are still not well understood. Second, the role of different constituents on the structural
and mechanical properties of biofilms has yet to be determined through a holistic multi-scale
viewpoint. Third, a predictive modeling approach to linking the cellular genome (genetic
makeup), mechanome (mechanics of curli nanofibers) and biofilm materiome (material
performance) remains elusive. A closed loop linking the bacterial genome to the mechanome of
the cells, and ultimately the materiome of biofilms will allow us to understand and improve upon
biological design principles. To address this issue, the objective of the proposed research is to
establish a materials genome approach to understanding the mechanics of biofilms. The two
aims that will be pursued in light of this overarching objective are:
• Aim 1 - Elucidate the adhesive and cohesive properties of curli nanofibers
• Aim 2 - Establish a mesoscopic model for biofilm adhesion and detachment
Through computational approaches validated by experimental characterizations, we will
be able to predict biofilm adhesion and cohesion characteristics from the shape, size, architecture
and surface chemistry of curli nanofibers. In the spirit of a materials genome approach, a
database for adhesive functional amyloids will be built to tailor biofilm performance through
theory-driven approaches. The proposed work is central to the long-term career objective of the
PI, which is to enable progress towards rapid discovery and design of bioinspired materials by
establishing a knowledge base of their physical behavior relevant to applications beyond the
biological milieu. This is a first effort at building a materials genome capability for natural and
engineered biofilms, and the niche expertise of the PI addresses the critical need to understand
nano and meso-scale mechanisms in these biosystems. The proposed research will reveal new
strategies for making — and also eradicating — biofilms by deciphering the inner working
Effective start/end date8/1/157/31/19


  • Office of Naval Research (N00014-15-1-2701-P00005)


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