Understanding the interfacial activity of bacteria is of critical importance due to the huge economic and public health implications associated with surface fouling and biofilm formation. The complexity of the process and difficulties of predicting microbial adhesion to novel materials demand study of the properties of specific bacterial surface features and their potential contribution to surface attachment. Here, we examine flagella, cell appendages primarily studied for their cell motility function, to elucidate their potential role in the surface adhesion of Escherichia coli - a model organism and potential pathogen. We use self-assembled monolayers (SAMs) of thiol-bearing molecules on gold films to generate surfaces of varying hydrophobicity, and measure adhesion of purified flagella using quartz crystal microbalance. We show that flagella adhere more extensively and bind more tightly to hydrophobic SAMs than to hydrophilic ones, and we propose a two-step vs a single-step adhesion mechanism that accounts for the observed dissipation and frequency changes for the two types of surfaces, respectively. Subsequently, study of the adhesion of wild-type and flagella knockout cells confirms that flagella improve adhesion to hydrophobic substrates, whereas cells lacking flagella do not show preferred affinity to hydrophobic substrates. Together, these properties bring about an interesting ability of cells with flagella to stabilize emulsions of aqueous culture and dodecane, not observed for cells lacking flagella. This work contributes to our overall understanding of nonspecific bacterial adhesion and confirms that flagella, beyond motility, may play an important role in surface adhesion.
Marine biofouling, the process of accumulation of microorganisms, plants, algae and animals on submerged surfaces, is an age-old problem associated with any maritime activity affecting commercial and recreational shipping activities, naval operations, aquaculture facilities and marine renewable energy structures alike. The adverse effects of marine biofouling include the increase of drag on ship hulls, damage to ships and maritime equipment such as corrosion, the spread of diseases in aquaculture and the distribution of invasive species causing extensive damage to coastal ecosystems and the benefits derived from them. An estimated global annual total of $60 billion in fuel cost alone can be saved by the application of marine antifouling coatings, making the treatment of marine biofouling a necessity not an option.