Morphological analysis of pore size and connectivity in a thick mixed-culture biofilm

Alex F. Rosenthal, James S. Griffin, Michael Wagner, Aaron I. Packman, Oluwaseyi Balogun, George F. Wells*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Morphological parameters are commonly used to predict transport and metabolic kinetics in biofilms. Yet, quantification of biofilm morphology remains challenging because of imaging technology limitations and lack of robust analytical approaches. We present a novel set of imaging and image analysis techniques to estimate internal porosity, pore size distributions, and pore network connectivity to a depth of 1 mm at a resolution of 10 µm in a biofilm exhibiting both heterotrophic and nitrifying activities. Optical coherence tomography (OCT) scans revealed an extensive pore network with diameters as large as 110 µm directly connected to the biofilm surface and surrounding fluid. Thin-section fluorescence in situ hybridization microscopy revealed that ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) distributed through the entire thickness of the biofilm. AOB were particularly concentrated in the biofilm around internal pores. Areal porosity values estimated from OCT scans were consistently lower than those estimated from multiphoton laser scanning microscopy, though the two imaging modalities showed a statistically significant correlation (r = 0.49, p < 0.0001). Estimates of areal porosity were moderately sensitive to gray-level threshold selection, though several automated thresholding algorithms yielded similar values to those obtained by manually thresholding performed by a panel of environmental engineering researchers (±25% relative error). These findings advance our ability to quantitatively describe the geometry of biofilm internal pore networks at length scales relevant to engineered biofilm reactors and suggest that internal pore structures provide crucial habitat for nitrifier growth.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2268-2279
Number of pages12
JournalBiotechnology and Bioengineering
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2018


  • biofilms
  • connectivity
  • mesoscale
  • nitrification
  • optical coherence tomography (OCT)
  • porosity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Bioengineering
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology


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