A sophisticated imaging technique has enabled researchers to watch bacteria assemble into tight-knit, organized communities called biofilms and to discern the structure and key protein components that hold these communities together.

Biofilms help bacteria to survive stressors such as antibiotics, but studying intact, living biofilms has proved difficult. Veysel Berk at the University of California, Berkeley, and his team developed a method to fluorescently label proteins in cells and continuously image them using conventional and super-resolution microscopy. The researchers watched dividing Vibrio cholerae cells, which cause cholera, and found that biofilms form when daughter cells remain attached to their parent cells, generating cell clusters. These clusters group together and are enclosed by a protein envelope to ultimately form the biofilm. The team also pinpointed the roles of four proteins that form the protein envelope and that allow cells to stick to each other and to surfaces.

Science 337, 236–239 (2012)