Emergent Biological Endurance Depends on Extracellular Matrix Composition of Three-Dimensionally Printed Escherichia coli Biofilms

Srikkanth Balasubramanian, Kui Yu, Diana Vasquez Cardenas, Marie Eve Aubin-Tam*, Anne S. Meyer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)
60 Downloads (Pure)


Biofilms are three-dimensional (3D) bacterial communities that exhibit a highly self-organized nature in terms of their composition and complex architecture. Bacteria in biofilms display emergent biological properties, such as resistance to antimicrobials and disinfectants that the individual planktonic cells lack. Bacterial biofilms possess specialized architectural features including unique extracellular matrix compositions and a distinct spatially patterned arrangement of cells and matrix components within the biofilm. It is unclear which of these architectural elements of bacterial biofilms lead to the development of their emergent biological properties. Here, we report a 3D printing-based technique for studying the emergent resistance behaviors of Escherichia coli biofilms as a function of their architecture. Cellulose and curli are the major extracellular-matrix components in E. coli biofilms. We show that 3D-printed biofilms expressing either curli alone or both curli and cellulose in their extracellular matrices show higher resistance to exposure against disinfectants than 3D prints expressing either cellulose alone or no biofilm-matrix components. The 3D-printed biofilms expressing cellulose and/or curli also show thicker anaerobic zones than nonbiofilm-forming E. coli 3D prints. Thus, the matrix composition plays a crucial role in the emergent spatial patterning and biological endurance of 3D-printed biofilms. In contrast, initial spatial distribution of bacterial density or curli-producing cells does not have an effect on biofilm resistance phenotypes. Further, these 3D-printed biofilms could be reversibly attached to different surfaces (bacterial cellulose, glass, and polystyrene) and display resistance to physical distortions by retaining their shape and structure. This physical robustness highlights their potential in applications including bioremediation, protective coatings against pathogens on medical devices, or wastewater treatment, among many others. This new understanding of the emergent behavior of bacterial biofilms could aid in the development of novel engineered living materials using synthetic biology and materials science approaches.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2997-3008
Number of pages12
JournalACS Synthetic Biology
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • 3D bioprinting
  • biofilms
  • cellulose
  • curli fibers
  • disinfectant resistance
  • synthetic biology


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