The Geometry of Life: Physicists Determine What Controls Biofilm Growth

July 9, 2024

From plaque sticking to teeth to scum on a pond, biofilms can be found nearly everywhere. These colonies of bacteria grow on implanted medical devices, our skin, contact lenses, and in our guts and lungs. They can be found in sewers and drainage systems, on the surface of plants, and even in the ocean.

“Some research says that 80% of infections in human bodies can be attributed to the bacteria growing in biofilms,” Aawaz Pokhrel says, lead author of a groundbreaking new study that uses physics to investigate how these biofilms grow.

The paper, “The Biophysical Basis of Bacterial Colony Growth,” was published in Nature Physics this week, and it shows that the fitness of a biofilm — its ability to grow, expand, and absorb nutrients from the medium or the substrate — is largely impacted by the contact angle that the biofilm’s edge makes with the substrate. The study also found that this geometry has a bigger influence on fitness than anything else, including the rate at which the cells can reproduce.

“That was the big surprise for us,” says corresponding author Peter Yunker, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Physics. “We expected that the geometry would play an important role, and we thought that figuring out exactly what the geometry is would be important for understanding why the range expansion rate, for example, [the rate at which the biofilm spreads across the surface over time] is constant. But we didn't start the project thinking that geometry would be the single most important factor.”

Understanding how biofilms grow — and what factors contribute to their growth rate — could lead to critical insights on controlling them, with applications for human health, lik