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.
We thank Tanya Shirman for TEM imaging, Hera Vlamakis for her help with phage transduction, Matthew Cabeen for his assistance with large-scale cultures for purification, and Karen Fahrner for assistance with flagella purification protocols. This work was partially funded by the Office of Naval Research under Award N00014-11-1-0641.