Attacking Biofilms: Another Quote, Plus Some Discussion

Stephen T. Abedon

Department of Microbiology – The Ohio State University – –


This quote is from Lee Watkins and J. W. Costerton (1984). Growth and biocide resistance of bacterial biofilms in industrial systems. Chemical Times and Trends (October):35-40.

The article has nothing to do with viruses. The quote is interesting, however, since it speaks to the question of how exactly to employ viruses in the biocontrol of microorganisms, specifically in the biocontrol and indeed elimination of biofilms from surfaces (quotation marks in the original):

lt is important to be able to answer that old question “Shall we slug with a biocide, shall we continuously treat with a biocide or shall we soak with a biocide—what is the best deal for the situation?”

To me these three alternatives are distinguishable in terms of how we might think about treatment of bacteria or biofilms with phages, that is, phage-mediated biocontrol of bacteria, or phage therapy.

The first alternative I interpret as the application of large amounts of biocide over short periods, perhaps in a single dose, i.e., slugging, or what we might describe as passive treatment in the case of phage therapy. Keep in mind that passive treatment should mean that for every bacterium targeted not only should at least 10 phages be added but at least 10 phages should be adsorbing, per adsorbable bacterium.

Continuous application, to me, would imply the application of lower but still minimally effective concentrations of biocide over longer periods. Continuous application represents an extreme of multiple dosing, i.e., where the time gap between applications is reduced to zero. Key here is that something other than overwhelming amounts of biocide is being applied, what many (unfortunately) would describe as something other than high multiplicities of infection (MOI) in the case of phage application. One can view such continuous application a preventive, or prophylactic.

Lastly there is soaking, which could also be viewed as continuous application, though this is an application that takes place over a relatively short period, i.e., days or weeks rather than months or years. This would be equivalent to the application of phages by soaking bandages, soaking various absorbent material (one sees mention of “tampons” in various places in the phage therapy literature, though it’s important to realize that the word has a medical definition), or instead via the application of, e.g., Phage Bioderm (for example, as discussed here).

What’s missing, of course, are any assumptions that the biocide will replicate in situ, i.e., so-called active treatment, which is typically considered to be a hallmark of phage-mediated biocontrol/phage therapy. That absence, though, is not unexpected given that this is from a discussion of chemical and physical anti-biofilm biocides rather than of phages.

Still, it once again is nice to see that there really is little that is new under the sun. When dealing with bacterial infections, particularly chronic ones which are associated with biofilms, it can be important to keep in mind these ideas:

  1. We can hit them very hard (literally overkill) over short periods,
  2. We can hit them less hard (minimally adequate biocide concentrations) but over long periods, perhaps particularly towards prevention, or
  3. We can soak the infections over intermediate periods, presumably with periodic re-invigoration of dosing, using antibacterial levels which, also presumably, are somewhat in excess of what might be viewed as minimally adequate.

Any other approach, unless backed by hard data, should be considered to represent mostly wishful thinking.

Some additional reading:

Abedon, S.T. 2016. Bacteriophage exploitation of bacterial biofilms: phage preference for less mature targets?  FEMS Microbiol. Lett. 363:fnv246. [PubMed]

Abedon, S.T. 2016. Commentary: phage therapy of staphylococcal chronic osteomyelitis in experimental animal model.  Front. Microbiol. 7:1251. [PubMed]

Abedon, S.T. 2016. Phage therapy dosing: The problem(s) with multiplicity of infection (MOI).  Bacteriophage 6:e1220348. [PubMed]

Abedon, S.T. 2014. Bacteriophages as drugs: the pharmacology of phage therapy., p. 69-100. In J. Borysowski, R. Miedzybrodzki, and A. Górski (eds.), Phage Therapy: Current Research and Applications. Caister Academic Press, Norfolk, UK.

Abedon, S. 2011. Phage therapy pharmacology: calculating phage dosing.  Adv. Appl. Microbiol. 77:1-40. [PubMed]

Abedon, S.T., S.J. Kuhl, B.G. Blasdel, and E.M. Kutter. 2011. Phage treatment of human infections.  Bacteriophage 1:66-85. [PubMed]

Abedon, S.T. and C. Thomas-Abedon. 2010. Phage therapy pharmacology.  Curr. Pharm. Biotechnol. 11:28-47. [PubMed]


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