Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Robustness analysis of culturing perturbations on Escherichia coli colony biofilm beta-lactam and aminoglycoside antibiotic tolerance

Trevor R Zuroff1, Hans Bernstein1, Jenna Lloyd-Randolfi12, Lourdes Jimenez-Taracido13, Philip S Stewart1 and Ross P Carlson1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Center for Biofilm Engineering, Montana State University, Bozeman MT 59717, USA

2 Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore Maryland, USA

3 University of Cadiz, Cadiz, Spain

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BMC Microbiology 2010, 10:185  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-10-185

Published: 7 July 2010



Biofilms are ubiquitous. For instance, the majority of medical infections are thought to involve biofilms. However even after decades of investigation, the in vivo efficacy of many antimicrobial strategies is still debated suggesting there is a need for better understanding of biofilm antimicrobial tolerances. The current study's goal is to characterize the robustness of biofilm antibiotic tolerance to medically and industrially relevant culturing perturbations. By definition, robust systems will return similar, predictable responses when perturbed while non-robust systems will return very different and potentially unpredictable responses. The predictability of an antibiotic tolerance response is essential to developing, testing, and employing antimicrobial strategies.


The antibiotic tolerance of Escherichia coli colony biofilms was tested against beta-lactam and aminoglycoside class antibiotics. Control scenario tolerances were compared to tolerances under culturing perturbations including 1) different nutritional environments 2) different temperatures 3) interruption of cellular quorum sensing and 4) different biofilm culture ages. Here, antibiotic tolerance was defined in terms of culturable biofilm cells recovered after a twenty four hour antibiotic treatment.

Colony biofilm antibiotic tolerances were not robust to perturbations. Altering basic culturing parameters like nutritional environment or temperature resulted in very different, non-intuitive antibiotic tolerance responses. Some minor perturbations like increasing the glucose concentration from 0.1 to 1 g/L caused a ten million fold difference in culturable cells over a twenty four hour antibiotic treatment.


The current study presents a basis for robustness analysis of biofilm antibiotic tolerance. Biofilm antibiotic tolerance can vary in unpredictable manners based on modest changes in culturing conditions. Common antimicrobial testing methods, which only consider a single culturing condition, are not desirable since slight culturing variations can lead to very different outcomes. The presented data suggest it is essential to test antimicrobial strategies over a range of culturing perturbations relevant to the targeted application. In addition, the highly dynamic antibiotic tolerance responses observed here may explain why some current antimicrobial strategies occasionally fail.