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Open Access Highly Accessed Methodology article

High-throughput metal susceptibility testing of microbial biofilms

Joe J Harrison12, Raymond J Turner1* and Howard Ceri12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biological Sciences, University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive N.W., Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2N 1N4

2 Biofilm Research Group, University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive N.W., Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2N 1N4

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BMC Microbiology 2005, 5:53  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-5-53

Published: 3 October 2005



Microbial biofilms exist all over the natural world, a distribution that is paralleled by metal cations and oxyanions. Despite this reality, very few studies have examined how biofilms withstand exposure to these toxic compounds. This article describes a batch culture technique for biofilm and planktonic cell metal susceptibility testing using the MBEC assay. This device is compatible with standard 96-well microtiter plate technology. As part of this method, a two part, metal specific neutralization protocol is summarized. This procedure minimizes residual biological toxicity arising from the carry-over of metals from challenge to recovery media. Neutralization consists of treating cultures with a chemical compound known to react with or to chelate the metal. Treated cultures are plated onto rich agar to allow metal complexes to diffuse into the recovery medium while bacteria remain on top to recover. Two difficulties associated with metal susceptibility testing were the focus of two applications of this technique. First, assays were calibrated to allow comparisons of the susceptibility of different organisms to metals. Second, the effects of exposure time and growth medium composition on the susceptibility of E. coli JM109 biofilms to metals were investigated.


This high-throughput method generated 96-statistically equivalent biofilms in a single device and thus allowed for comparative and combinatorial experiments of media, microbial strains, exposure times and metals. By adjusting growth conditions, it was possible to examine biofilms of different microorganisms that had similar cell densities. In one example, Pseudomonas aeruginosa ATCC 27853 was up to 80 times more resistant to heavy metalloid oxyanions than Escherichia coli TG1. Further, biofilms were up to 133 times more tolerant to tellurite (TeO32-) than corresponding planktonic cultures. Regardless of the growth medium, the tolerance of biofilm and planktonic cell E. coli JM109 to metals was time-dependent.


This method results in accurate, easily reproducible comparisons between the susceptibility of planktonic cells and biofilms to metals. Further, it was possible to make direct comparisons of the ability of different microbial strains to withstand metal toxicity. The data presented here also indicate that exposure time is an important variable in metal susceptibility testing of bacteria.