JOURNAL OF BACTERIOLOGY,
Copyright © 2001, American Society for Microbiology. All Rights Reserved.
Feb. 2001, p. 1195–1204Vol. 183, No. 4
Initiation of Biofilm Formation by Pseudomonas aeruginosa
57RP Correlates with Emergence of Hyperpiliated and Highly
Adherent Phenotypic Variants Deficient in Swimming,
Swarming, and Twitching Motilities
ERIC DE´ZIEL,1,2YVES COMEAU,2AND RICHARD VILLEMUR1*
INRS-Institut Armand-Frappier-Microbiologie et Biotechnologie, Laval, Que ´bec, Canada H7V 1B7,1and Civil,
Geological, and Mining Engineering Department, E´cole Polytechnique de Montre ´al,
Montre ´al, Que ´bec, Canada H3C 3A72
Received 14 July 2000/Accepted 16 November 2000
Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a ubiquitous environmental bacterium capable of forming biofilms on surfaces as
a survival strategy. It exhibits a large variety of competition/virulence factors, such as three types of motilities:
flagellum-mediated swimming, flagellum-mediated swarming, and type IV pilus-mediated twitching. A strategy
frequently used by bacteria to survive changing environmental conditions is to create a phenotypically heter-
ogeneous population by a mechanism called phase variation. In this report, we describe the characterization
of phenotypic variants forming small, rough colonies that spontaneously emerged when P. aeruginosa 57RP was
cultivated as a biofilm or in static liquid cultures. These small-colony (S) variants produced abundant type IV
fimbriae, displayed defective swimming, swarming, and twitching motilities, and were impaired in chemotaxis.
They also autoaggregated in liquid cultures and rapidly initiated the formation of strongly adherent biofilms.
In contrast, the large-colony variant (parent form) was poorly adherent, homogeneously dispersed in liquid
cultures, and produced scant polar fimbriae. Further analysis of the S variants demonstrated differences in a
variety of other phenotypic traits, including increased production of pyocyanin and pyoverdine and reduced
elastase activity. Under appropriate growth conditions, cells of each phenotype switched to the other phenotype
at a fairly high frequency. We conclude that these S variants resulted from phase variation and were selectively
enriched when P. aeruginosa 57RP was grown as a biofilm or in static liquid cultures. We propose that phase
variation ensures the prior presence of phenotypic forms well adapted to initiate the formation of a biofilm as
soon as environmental conditions are favorable.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a gram-negative bacterium found
in almost every ecological niche, including soil, water, and
plants. It is also an important opportunistic pathogen of hu-
mans, primarily infecting immunocompromised patients (17).
Recent reports indicate that environmental and clinical P.
aeruginosa strains are functionally equivalent and taxonomi-
cally indistinguishable (14). The success of P. aeruginosa in
various environments is attributed to its broad metabolic ver-
satility and its elaboration of many cell-associated and secreted
virulence/survival factors (47).
Among the cell surface structures of P. aeruginosa, the polar
flagellum is responsible for a mode of motility in aqueous
environment called swimming. As for most other motile bac-
teria, direction of movement is biased by chemotactic re-
sponses to chemical stimuli (6, 31, 46). Flagella also mediate a
mode of social motility known as swarming, recently described
for the first time in P. aeruginosa (39). Other cell surface
structures acting as virulence/survival factors are type IV pili.
These polar fimbriae are presumably the principal adhesins,
mediating the adherence to eukaryotic cell surfaces (18) and
probably to abiotic surfaces as well (41). They are also respon-
sible for the flagellum-independent mode of surface translo-
cation called twitching motility (9, 41, 48).
Bacteria in natural habitats usually grow as biofilms, orga-
nized communities of cells embedded in an extracellular poly-
saccharide matrix and attached to a surface (5). In recent
years, much has been learned about how cells initiate biofilm
formation (43, 49). Escherichia coli mutants defective in bio-
film formation were found either to lack the ability to produce
type 1 pili or to be nonmotile (37). Similarly, flagellar motility
and type IV pilus-based twitching motility have been shown to
be required for the initial attachment and development of a
biofilm by P. aeruginosa (34).
Biofilm bacteria display particular phenotypes that distin-
guish them from their freely growing counterparts (5, 49). The
differential expression of a large number of genes is known to
occur in the initial steps of biofilm formation (5, 38), such as
the upregulation of exopolysaccharide synthesis following bac-
terial adhesion to a surface (10, 38). However, a regulatory
system controlling the conversion to the biofilm phenotype has
not been described.
A strategy that bacteria use to rapidly adapt and survive
when environmental conditions change is to create a pheno-
typically diverse population by a mechanism called phase vari-
ation, that is, the high-frequency and reversible switching of
phenotypic traits (13). In gram-negative bacteria, the expres-
sion of a number of cell surface structures and outer mem-
brane proteins, especially those linked to adhesion, aggrega-
* Corresponding author. INRS-Institut Armand-Frappier-Microbi-
ologie et Biotechnologie, 531 Boul. des Prairies, Laval, Que ´bec, Can-
ada H7V 1B7. Phone: (450) 687-5010. Fax: (450) 686-5501. E-mail:
tion, and colonial morphology, is known to be regulated by
phase-variable mechanisms (reviewed in reference 22).
As a part of a research project aimed at understanding the
physiological mechanisms used by P. aeruginosa to access and
catabolize hydrophobic, poorly bioavailable substrates such pe-
troleum hydrocarbons (11), we have observed the spontaneous
emergence of alternate phenotypic forms growing as small,
rough colonies when P. aeruginosa 57RP was cultivated as a
biofilm or in static liquid cultures (E. De ´ziel, Y. Comeau, and
R. Villemur, Abstr. 99th Gen. Meet. Am. Soc. Microbiol.,
abstr. K-57, 1999). Since colonial morphology reflects the dif-
ferential expression of components on cell surfaces within the
colony, we hypothesized that the adherence and/or motility
behavior of this small colony phenotype might be altered.
In this report, we describe the isolation and characterization
of phenotypic variants of P. aeruginosa 57RP. In contrast with
the large-colony (L) variant (parent form), the small-colony
(S) variants produced abundant polar fimbriae, displayed re-
duced flagellar (chemotactic) and twitching motilities, and rap-
idly initiated the formation of strongly adherent biofilms. Un-
der appropriate growth conditions, cells of each phenotype
switched to the other phenotype at a fairly high frequency,
suggesting that these S variants resulted from a reversible
phase variation phenomenon and were selectively enriched
when P. aeruginosa was grown as a biofilm or in static liquid
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Bacterial strains and culture media. P. aeruginosa 57RP was originally isolated
from a hydrocarbon-contaminated soil (11). Bacteria were routinely subcultured
on tryptic soy agar (TSA) plates from frozen stocks, and overnight cultures in
Luria-Bertani broth (LB) at 37°C and 250 rpm were used to prepare inocula,
unless stated otherwise.
Evaluation of cell surface hydrophobicity and cell adherence. (i) MATH.
Estimation of microbial cell surface hydrophobicity was performed with a mi-
crobial adhesion to hydrocarbon (MATH) test (40). Cells from overnight cul-
tures were washed twice and resuspended in 25 mM phosphate-buffered saline
(PBS) to an optical density at 600 nm of approximately 0.6. Then 1.5 ml of this
suspension was mixed with various volumes of hexadecane (ranging from 0 to 700
?l) in 16- by 125-mm test tubes and vortexed for 30 s. After 30 min of equili-
bration, we measured the loss in absorbance of the aqueous phase relative to that
of the initial cell suspension and estimated hydrophobicity by calculating the
percentage of cells adhering to hexadecane.
(ii) MATS. To estimate the adhesion potential of the cells (microbial adhesion
to silica sand [MATS]), the MATH test was modified by replacing the hexade-
cane with different amounts (0 to 900 mg) of fine granular silica sand.
Motility and chemotaxis assays. (i) Swimming. Tryptone swim plates (1%
tryptone, 0.5% NaCl, 0.3% agar) were inoculated with a sterile toothpick and
incubated for 16 h at 25°C. Motility was then assessed qualitatively by examining
the circular turbid zone formed by the bacterial cells migrating away from the
point of inoculation.
(ii) Swarming. Swarm plates were composed of 0.5% Bacto Agar and 8 g of
nutrient broth/liter (both from Difco, Detroit, Mich.), supplemented with 5 g of
dextrose/liter, and dried overnight at room temperature (39). Cells were point
inoculated with a sterile toothpick, and the plates were incubated at 30°C for
(iii) Twitching. Cells were stab inoculated with a toothpick through a thin
(approximately 3-mm) LB agar layer (1% agar) to the bottom of the petri dish.
After incubation for 24 to 48 h at 30°C, a hazy zone of growth at the interface
between the agar and the polystyrene surface was observed (7). The ability of
bacteria to strongly adhere and form a biofilm on the polystyrene surface was
then examined by removing the agar, washing unattached cells with a stream of
tap water, and staining the attached cells with crystal violet (1% [wt/vol] solu-
(iv) Flagellar chemotaxis. The chemotactic response was quantified by a
slightly modified version of the capillary assay of Mazumder et al. (32). A 1-ml
tuberculin syringe with a disposable 25-gauge needle (Terumo Medical Corp.,
Elkton, Md.) was filled with 100 ?l of Bushnell-Haas (BH) mineral salts medium
(Difco) containing 0.1% tryptone as a chemoattractant. Cells were grown in LB
at 37°C to the logarithmic phase, washed, and resuspended in BH. A 100-?l
sample of this bacterial suspension was drawn into a 200-?l pipette tip. The
syringe was then inserted and tightly fit into the tip with 3 mm of the needle
inserted into the cell suspension. Control capillaries containing only BH were
performed with each assay. Duplicate apparatus were incubated at 37°C for 45
min, and the content of the syringe was then diluted in 25 mM PBS and plated
onto TSA plates for cell enumeration.
Biofilm formation assay with polystyrene culture tubes. The biofilm formation
protocol was adapted from that of O’Toole and Kolter (35). Polystyrene 12- by
75-mm tubes containing 0.5 ml of BDT medium (BH mineral salts medium
supplemented with 0.2% dextrose and 0.5% tryptone) were inoculated from
overnight LB cultures and incubated at 32°C without agitation. At regular time
intervals, triplicate tubes were rinsed thoroughly with water, and a 1% solution
of crystal violet was added to stain the attached cells. After 10 to 15 min of
incubation at room temperature, the tubes were rinsed with water, and the
biomass of attached cells (biofilm) was quantified by solubilization of the dye in
2 ml of 95% ethanol. The absorbance was measured at 600 nm with a spectro-
Sensitivity to oxidative stress. The disk assay of Hassett et al. (21) was used to
test the sensitivity of cells to oxidative stress. Briefly, 100-?l aliquots from
cultures in mid-log or stationary phases of growth were uniformly spread on TSA
and medium A (25) plates containing 2% agar. Sterile Whatman no. 1 filter
paper disks (7-mm diameter) impregnated with 10 ?l of 30% H2O2were placed
in triplicate on each plate. The diameter of the zone of growth inhibition around
each disk was measured after 5 h of incubation at 37°C.
Production of exoproducts. (i) Pyocyanin. Bacteria were grown for 30 h at
37°C and 250 rpm in 2 ml of medium A, which promotes pyocyanin production,
and the relative amount of pyocyanin in culture supernatant was measured
spectrophotometrically at 695 nm.
(ii) Pyoverdine. Cells were cultivated at 37°C and 250 rpm for 16 h in 2 ml of
medium B (25). The relative concentration of pyoverdine was quantified in the
supernatants by measurement of the fluorescence at 460 nm after excitation at
400 nm with a Spectramax Gemini microplate spectrofluorometer (Molecular
Devices Corp., Sunnyvale, Calif.).
(iii) Total proteases and elastase. Elastase (LasB protease) activity was de-
termined in liquid cultures by the elastin-Congo red (ECR) hydrolysis assay as
described by Pearson et al. (36).
(iv) Determination of alginate production. Cells were cultivated in LB sup-
plemented with 0.2% glycerol for 92 h at 37°C and 250 rpm. The cultures were
then centrifuged at 8,000 ? g for 5 min, and the alginate contained in the
supernatants was precipitated at ?70°C for 16 h with 3 volumes of 95% ethanol.
The precipitate was recovered by centrifugation at 18,000 ? g for 15 min and
resuspended in water. Alginate was quantified by assaying uronic acids with the
borate-carbazole method (26), with D-mannuronate lactone (Sigma Chemical
Co., St. Louis, Mo.) as a standard. Values were normalized to cell growth with
total cellular protein concentrations. Proteins were solubilized in 0.1 N NaOH at
70°C for 30 min and analyzed by the method of Bradford (Bio-Rad Laboratories,
Hercules, Calif.), with bovine serum albumin as a standard.
(v) Rhamnolipids. Cultures were conducted at 30°C in agitated glass test tubes
containing 1 ml of SW1/10F mineral salts medium with 2% mannitol (11, 12).
Total production of all isomers of rhamnolipid biosurfactants was estimated in
the supernatant by extraction and hydrolysis followed by quantification of rham-
nose with the orcinol assay (4). The concentration of rhamnolipids was deter-
mined considering that 1 mg of rhamnose corresponds to 2.25 mg of rhamno-
lipids (12). Because of the highly clumping behavior of the S variants, the whole
culture was evaluated for total protein content and correlated to rhamnolipid
Electron microscopy. A drop of water was deposited on the edge of a colony
from an overnight-grown LB agar plate. Cells were allowed to become suspended
for about 1 min; then a Formvar-coated copper grid was floated on the drop for
about 45 s, rinsed in a drop of water, and stained for 15 s with a 2% aqueous
solution of phosphotungstic acid. Samples were examined with a Hitachi H-7100
transmission electron microscope.
Emergence of phenotypic variants of P. aeruginosa 57RP
correlates with biofilm formation. The wild-type P. aeruginosa
57RP parent strain usually produces large (?16-mm diameter
1196DE´ZIEL ET AL.J. BACTERIOL.
after 2 days at 30°C), flat colonies with an irregular, finely
mottled periphery on LB plates (Fig. 1A). We had previously
observed that when this strain was cultivated in liquid medium
with hexadecane as the substrate, there was a lag phase (ap-
proximately 5 to 10 days) before significant growth occurred.
Interestingly, at the onset of the exponential growth phase, we
noticed the formation of a biofilm on the surface of hexade-
cane droplets, and this was correlated with the appearance of
small, dry-looking colonies on agar plates. A progression from
the wild-type form to the small rough colony phenotype with
transient appearance of intermediate size and roughness was
also noticed during the cultivation period on hexadecane (De ´z-
iel et al., Abstr. 99th Gen. Meet. Am. Soc. Microbiol.).
A variety of colonial forms were recognized and isolated.
Two typical small phenotypic variants (called S1 and S2) were
selected for a more detailed characterization. When cultivated
on LB plates, the S1 variant formed small (?3-mm diameter
after 2 days at 30°C [Fig. 1B]), convex, circular, and opaque
colonies, whereas colonies of the S2 variant were larger
(?8-mm diameter after 2 days at 30°C [Fig. 1C]) and flatter,
with a granular and irregular surface. This phenomenon was
not restricted to strain 57RP; other P. aeruginosa strains dem-
onstrating a lag phase before growth on hexadecane also
formed S variants (data not shown). Arbitrarily primed PCRs
using four different primers (10 nucleotides each) produced
the same DNA patterns with the two variants and the parental
strain (designated the L variant), confirming that the S variants
were not contaminants (data not shown).
When S variant colonies were cultivated in agitated broth
medium, growth appeared along the vessel walls as highly
aggregative and adherent cells yielding low-turbidity cultures,
whereas the L variant grew as a turbid, homogeneous suspen-
sion with no adherent cells (Fig. 1D). The clumping behavior
of the S variants prevented representative sampling of liquid
culture media. However, no difference in growth kinetics be-
tween the L and the S variants was observed when cultures
were conducted in glass test tubes and the whole content was
evaluated for total proteins. Under static culture conditions,
the L variant first grew evenly in suspension in the medium and
then slowly formed a surface film. Plating of this pellicle
showed that it was essentially composed of S variants. Accord-
ingly, when cultivated in the same conditions, the S1 and S2
variants predominantly grew as a thick pellicle at the surface of
the liquid with a clear supernatant.
Since the S variants produced adherent growth, we postu-
lated that they could be more efficient than the L variant in
initiating the formation of biofilms. In fact, we noticed that
biofilms formed in test tubes or in continuous-flow bioreactors
after inoculation with the L variant were always predominantly
composed of S-type variants. The dynamic of biofilm formation
was measured for the three variants by cultivating them in
nonagitated polystyrene tubes. As shown in Fig. 2, the L vari-
ant did not form a significant biofilm after 10 h of incubation.
In contrast, the S variants quickly adhered and formed a dense
biofilm within a few hours. The biofilm formed by S1 then
rapidly dispersed, probably following exhaustion of the growth
substrate, whereas the biofilm developed by S2 was much more
stable, eventually coming off as large cell clumps during the
washing steps (as shown by the larger error bars at the end of
the incubation period).
S variants can revert to the parent L variant phenotype.
Outside a selective environment, the S1 variant reverted to the
L phenotype at a relatively high frequency. Transfer plating of
an S1 colony on TSA plates consistently resulted in the emer-
gence of L-type revertants forming sectors emerging from the
colonies (arrow in Fig. 1B). For example, after 1 week of
incubation at room temperature, most colonies on a plate
displayed outgrowth of L variant cells. The same phenomenon
also occurred with the S2 variant but at a much lower fre-
quency, with only occasional revertants appearing on plates.
Because of the differences in growth behavior and environ-
mental niche preferences between the L and S variants, deter-
mination of switching rates is not readily possible.
FIG. 1. Visual differences between growth phenotypes. (A to C)
Colonies of L variant (A), S1 variant (B; the arrow indicates the
emergence of a L-type revertant sector emerging from the side of a
colony), and S2 variant (C) on LB agar plates incubated at 30°C. (D)
Overnight growth in broth medium with shaking. The L and S1rev
variants grew homogeneously dispersed in the medium, whereas the S1
and S2 variants preferred the interface and the glass surface. S1rev is
an L variant resulting from the reversion of an S1 variant.
FIG. 2. Kinetics of biofilm formation. L (F), S1 (?), and S2 (Œ)
variants were cultivated in polystyrene tubes at 32°C without agitation.
At the indicated time intervals, triplicate tubes were rinsed and stained
with crystal violet. The amount of stained cells was then quantified by
spectrophotometry (A600) after solubilization of the dye in ethanol.
VOL. 183, 2001 INITIATION OF BIOFILM FORMATION BY P. AERUGINOSA 57RP1197
S variants demonstrate increased cell surface hydrophobic-
ity and adhesivity. The aggregating and adherent behavior of
the S variants suggested that their cell surface hydrophobicity
was higher than that of the L variant. According to the stan-
dard assay used to quantitatively evaluate cell surface hydro-
phobicity (MATH test), the cell surface of S1 was much more
hydrophobic than the surface of the parent L variant (Fig. 3A).
However, this variant was also more adhesive to silica sand, a
hydrophilic substratum (Fig. 3B), indicating that the S variants
are mainly characterized by their adherence. It was not possi-
ble to perform these assays with S2 because of the highly
clumping behavior of this variant.
S variants are deficient in swimming, swarming and twitch-
ing motilities. The reduced diameter of S variants colonies
suggested that they were impaired in motility and/or chemo-
taxis. When the S variants were cultivated on soft agar plates,
their zones of swimming were smaller than that for the L
variant with S2 producing slightly larger zones than S1 (Fig.
4A). There was some dispersion of cells from the point of
inoculation but without the formation of concentric chemotac-
tic rings, suggesting that the S variants are not completely
defective in motility but may be impaired in chemotaxis. Mi-
croscopic examination showed that the S variants were motile,
but many cells exhibited a tumbling behavior and random
movement and lacked the directional swimming typical of the
L phenotype. On swarm agar plates, the S variants remained
near the point of inoculation and did not form the expanding
and irregular branching pattern which is characteristic of
swarming motility in P. aeruginosa, as recently described by
Rashid and Kornberg (39) (Fig. 4B).
Finally, when the strains were stabbed through a thin agar
layer, the S variants formed a smaller and denser zone of
twitching motility at the polystyrene-agar interface than the L
variant (Fig. 4C). When the agar was scraped off and the
polystyrene surface was rinsed with tap water, the thin layer of
L variant growth was readily dispersed by the stream of water,
whereas the bacteria in the twitching zone of the S variants
remained firmly attached to the polystyrene surface. Staining
with crystal violet indicated that the attached cells closely
matched the twitching area (Fig. 4D). Furthermore, observa-
tion of the stained cells area on the polystyrene plate demon-
strated striking differences between the adherence patterns of
the S1 and S2 variants. S1 produced an expanding donut-
shaped adherent zone, indicating that only the outer side of the
twitching area was attached, whereas S2 cells remained adher-
ent to the polystyrene surface, with only few bacteria released
from the center of the colony (Fig. 4D). Microscopic analysis
revealed that the leading edge of the twitching zone was com-
posed of rafts of cells longitudinally oriented toward the ex-
panding direction of the colony (Fig. 4E to H). These rafts
were usually composed of a single layer of cells, but their
density varied depending on the culture medium and temper-
ature of incubation. Behind these rafts, a complex lattice-like
arrangement of cells was formed, very similar to what was
recently reported by others for P. aeruginosa (39, 41). In con-
trast to what was observed for S1, the rafts of S2 were generally
larger, shorter, and often multilayered, and the highly struc-
tured fine latticework network behind the rafts of microcolo-
nies was absent (Fig. 4H). Identity of zones of bacterial adher-
ence as a typical biofilm was confirmed by the presence of
dispersed microcolonies in an alginate matrix, the latter dem-
onstrated by staining with the exopolysaccharide-specific dye
alcian blue (data not shown).
Flagellar chemotactic response is impaired in the S vari-
ants. The fact that all three types of motilities were affected, in
addition to the absence of clear chemotactic rings on swim
plates, suggested a defect in chemotaxis. The capillary chemo-
taxis assay showed that the S variants were not significantly
FIG. 3. Evaluation of cell surface hydrophobicity and adhesion po-
tential by the MATH (A) and MATS (B) tests, respectively, in L (F)
and S1 (?) variants. Various amounts of hexadecane (MATH) or silica
sand (MATS) were mixed with a washed cell suspension in PBS, and
the optical densities at 600 nm before and after were compared. Values
for the MATH test are means ? standard deviations of duplicates.
FIG. 4. Differences in motility phenotypes of L and S variants. (A) Swimming motility on a tryptone swim plate (0.3% agar). (B) Swarming
motility on a 0.5% agar plate. (C) Twitching motility on a thin (3-mm) LB plate containing 1% agar. Twitching is observed as a hazy zone of
interstitial growth surrounding the surface colony. (D) Staining with crystal violet of cells in twitching zones that remained attached to the
polystyrene surface after removing the agar layer and washing with water. (E to H) Light microscopy of the outside of the twitching zone stained
with crystal violet. (E and F) S1 and S2 variant cells at a magnification of ?90; (G and H) rafts of S1 and S2 variant cells oriented toward the
expending direction of the twitching area at a magnification of ?900.
1198 DE´ZIEL ET AL.J. BACTERIOL.
VOL. 183, 2001 INITIATION OF BIOFILM FORMATION BY P. AERUGINOSA 57RP1199
attracted to tryptone, a strong chemoattractant. The relative
chemotaxis response (ratio of bacterial cell number in the
capillary with tryptone to that without tryptone) was between
3.5 and 4 for the L variant and between 1 and 1.5 for the S
variants (Fig. 5) A ratio of 2 or more is considered significant
(32), confirming that the S variants displayed a defective che-
Electron microscopy. The high adherence and impaired mo-
tility of the S variants hinted at abnormal pili or flagella. Trans-
mission electron microscopy of cells directly sampled from the
edge of colonies revealed that the S variants are hyperpiliated
(Fig. 6), with the environment of the cells surrounded with pili
fragments. Pili were especially abundant in cell aggregates.
Bundles formed by the entwinement of numerous pili, some
larger than flagella, were frequently observed.
Expression of various virulence/survival factors is altered in
the S variants. We investigated whether there were any differ-
ences in virulence/survival factors other than chemotaxis, mo-
tility, and piliation. Pyocyanin, the blue phenazine pigment of
P. aeruginosa, is an extracellular secondary metabolite with
antibiotic activity. As shown in Table 1, the S variants pro-
duced three to fivefold more pyocyanin than the L variant.
Furthermore, culture supernatants of the S variants contained
about 70% more pyoverdine, the primary siderophore of P.
aeruginosa, than the L phenotype. The ECR assay unambigu-
ously demonstrated that the S variants excrete less LasB pro-
tease (Table 1). Alginate is an exopolysaccharide that is se-
creted by P. aeruginosa for the establishment of the biofilm
matrix. Considering that the S variants formed a biofilm more
readily than the L variants, we examined the production of
extracellular alginate. In agitated flask cultures at 37°C, there
was no difference in the concentration of uronic acids in the
supernatant (Table 1). Rhamnolipids are heat-stable hemo-
lysins, displaying surface-active properties, which are copro-
duced with other extracellular factors (36, 47). The S variants,
especially S2, appeared to produce slightly lower concentra-
tions of this biosurfactant than the parent variant (Table 1).
Finally, we examined the ability of the variants to survive stress
aggression. As shown in Table 1, there was no clear difference
in sensitivity to H2O2between the L and S variants in station-
ary-phase cells. However, when cells from the logarithmic
phase of growth were plated, the zone of inhibition caused by
H2O2was about 30% smaller for the L variant than for the S
variants, indicating hypersensitivity of the latter. Results ob-
tained on TSA plates did not significantly differ from those
obtained on medium A agar.
Colonial phenotypes and type IV pili. Our work describes
the isolation and characterization of phenotypic variants (S
FIG. 5. Comparison of chemotactic responses of L and S variants.
Capillary apparatus with or without 0.1% tryptone as a chemoattrac-
tant was prepared as described in Materials and Methods and incu-
bated at 37°C for 45 min. The content of the syringe was then plated
onto TSA plates for cell enumeration. Error bars represent the stan-
dard deviations of duplicates.
FIG. 6. Transmission electron micrographs of L (A) and S2 (B)
variants. Cells were grown overnight on LB agar plates, transferred
onto Formvar-coated copper grids, and stained with phosphotungstic
acid. Arrows indicate type IV pili. Bars ? 0.2 ?m.
1200 DE´ZIEL ET AL.J. BACTERIOL.
phenotype) selectively enriched when P. aeruginosa 57RP was
cultivated as a biofilm, whereas the parent L phenotype pre-
dominates in suspended growth. We also observed that the L
variant of P. aeruginosa 57RP produced a surface pellicle en-
riched in S variants when cultivated in static liquid medium.
Under these growth conditions, S variants demonstrated a
strong preference for aggregative growth at the air-broth in-
terface. The presence of hydrophobic type 1 fimbriae in E. coli,
Salmonella, and Shigella is known to mediate the formation of
surface film in nonagitated aerobic cultures (20, 33, 42). Has-
man et al. (20) reported that the physical presence of type 1
fimbriae on E. coli K-12 is responsible for the formation of
small, convex colonies, whereas the absence of fimbriae is
correlated with larger, flat colonies. A similar correlation is
commonly used as an indicator of pilus expression in Neisseria
gonorrhoeae, which display type IV pili (29, 45). Hyperpiliated
mutants of P. aeruginosa have been shown to form small col-
onies very similar to the S1 variant colonies (2). Thus, both
surface film formation and small-colony phenotype are in
agreement with hyperfimbriation of our S variants, as also
confirmed by transmission electron microscopy (Fig. 6). Ob-
servations that the cell surface of the S variants is more hydro-
phobic and their adhesivity is higher than for the parent L
variant are also coherent with the hyperpiliated phenotype.
Motility and chemotaxis. Characterization of P. aeruginosa
mutants which lack twitching motility has allowed the identi-
fication of about 34 genes involved in type IV pili biogenesis,
regulation, and function in twitching (1, 48). Mutation in any of
these genes results in nonpiliated cells, with few exceptions
such as strains with defects in pilT or pilU, which overexpress
surface pili but are incapable of twitching motility (50, 51). The
S variants are apparently not directly affected in any of these
genes since they actually formed twitching zones at the agar-
polystyrene interface, albeit these were smaller than zones
formed by the L variants. Another notable exception is pilH,
which encodes a homologue of the enteric CheY response
regulator. Strains with a defective pilH gene are piliated but
form reduced twitching zones, with the presence of donut-
shaped swirls at the outer edge of the motile zone (8). We also
noticed, especially with S2, many holes and rings of cells rem-
iniscent of the swirls reported by Darzins (8), suggesting that
pilH may be affected in the S variants.
Interestingly, cells in the twitching zone of the S variants
were highly adherent to the polystyrene surface, suggesting
that a biofilm had formed. With the S1 variant, which is the
typical S phenotype, only the exterior of the twitching area was
adherent, resulting in an expanding donut-shaped biofilm. Ac-
cordingly, Semmler et al. (41) have shown by Western blotting
with antipilin antisera that type IV fimbriae are expressed only
on the outside of active twitching zones. It appears that cells
left behind the zone of expansion, where the growth substrate
was depleted, were much less adherent and readily detached
when the polystyrene surface was rinsed. In this context, the
observations that S variants were mostly found attached to
surfaces (in biofilms and surface pellicles) and L variant in
suspension suggest that the bacteria switched back to the non-
adherent, chemotactically swimming L phenotype when growth
conditions were no longer favorable. The doughnut-shaped
ring of adherent cells therefore appears to extend at the rate of
substrate consumption and twitching motility. Twitching mo-
tility was recently implicated in P. aeruginosa biofilm move-
ment on abiotic surfaces (41) and in the formation of micro-
colonies within a differentiating or developing biofilm (34).
Although S variants presented defects in all three known
modes of motility in P. aeruginosa, flagellum-mediated swim-
ming, flagellum-mediated swarming, and type IV pilus-medi-
ated twitching, only swarming was completely abrogated. P.
aeruginosa is usually strongly attracted to commonly occurring
amino acids (6, 46), such as those found in tryptone. However,
the lack of chemotactic rings in the swimming assay on soft
agar and chemotactic response in the capillary assay indicated
that the S variants are deficient in chemotaxis (Fig. 4A and 5).
To control the direction of swimming, P. aeruginosa uses a
two-component sensor-regulator system with methyl-accepting
chemotaxis proteins similar to those found in enteric bacteria
(31, 46). Phenotypic differences between the L and the S vari-
ants, such as small colony size and defective flagellar and
twitching motilities, were observed not only with undefined
broth substrates but also with BH mineral salts medium sup-
plemented with succinate or dextrose (data not shown), indi-
cating that the defect is not simply limited to chemotactic
transducers. At least two additional signal transduction system
regulating pilus biosynthesis and twitching motility have been
described in P. aeruginosa. The PilS/PilR network controls
TABLE 1. Comparison of production of extracellular products and sensitivity to oxidative stress between the L and S variants
Alginate (mg of
uronic acid/mg of
0.27 ? 0.02
0.89 ? 0.08
0.23 ? 0.02
1.36 ? 0.04
29,700 ? 2,700
50,000 ? 1,100
33,000 ? 1,100
48,100 ? 1,800
2.26 ? 0.27
1.43 ? 0.10
0.42 ? 0.07
6.53 ? 0.56
6.69 ? 0.31
7.15 ? 0.27
2.01 ? 0.12
1.82 ? 0.08
1.58 ? 0.13
17.2 ? 0.7
18.3 ? 0.5
17.0 ? 0.6
18.5 ? 0.5
16.4 ? 0.5
23.0 ? 0.6
16.3 ? 0.5
24.5 ? 1.0
aMeasured as A695of the supernatant of a 30-h culture at 37°C in King’s A medium.
bMeasured in the supernatant of a 16-h culture at 37°C in King’s B medium. A460was determined after excitation at 400 nm and reported as relative fluorescence
cMeasured in ECR assays of culture supernatants from 18-h cultures as described in Materials and Methods and reported as A495.
dFilter paper disks (7-mm diameter) soaked with 10 ?l of 30% H2O2were placed on top of medium A agar plates covered with P. aeruginosa cells. Bacteria from
exponential- or stationary-phase cultures in LB at 37°C were used as the inoculum, and the diameter of the zone of inhibited growth was measured after 5 h of
incubation at 37°C. All values are means ? standard errors of triplicates.
eS1rev is an L variant resulting from the reversion of an S1 variant.
fND, not determined.
VOL. 183, 2001 INITIATION OF BIOFILM FORMATION BY P. AERUGINOSA 57RP1201
fimbrial biogenesis (1), while the pilGHIJKL gene products
appear to support both pilus production and twitching motility
(1, 9). The latter gene cluster resembles both the chemotaxis
(Che) network controlling flagellar rotation in enteric bacteria
and the Frz system which controls gliding motility in Myxococ-
cus xanthus (8, 9). Gliding, which was recently shown to be
essentially the same as twitching (41), is also mediated by type
IV fimbriae (52). Although the environmental signals detected
by the twitching motility signal transduction system are still
undefined (9), it is suggested that pili might play a role as
sensory organs for detecting cells nearby (48). Since twitching
motility requires cell-to-cell contacts (41, 48), and our S vari-
ants produce denser, less differentiated twitching zones, they
may be affected in the ability to sense neighbor cells. In this
context, it is pertinent that swarming motility also seems to
require cell-cell contacts (15). Swarming was only recently de-
scribed in P. aeruginosa (39), and any involvement of chemo-
taxis in this type of motility has yet to be reported. In E. coli,
chemotaxis is not required for swarming motility but a func-
tional chemotaxis system is essential (3).
It was recently established that inactivation of the rhlA gene,
which is required for rhamnolipid synthesis, abolishes swarm-
ing motility in P. aeruginosa (27; our unpublished results).
However, the moderate decrease in rhamnolipid production by
the S variants (Table 1) does not justify the complete elimina-
tion of swarming in these bacteria.
Although a modification of sensory systems is a more likely
explanation for the peculiar motility behavior of the S variants,
we must consider the possibility that L variant-type motility is
simply prevented by the very large number of pili, causing
obstruction of the normal flagellar activity and excessive ad-
herence to the solid surface.
In agreement with our results, Pratt and Kolter (37) have
shown with E. coli that motility, but not chemotaxis, is essential
for normal biofilm formation. Together, our observations
(overexpression of surface pili, elevated hydrophobicity and
adhesivity, and defective chemosensory response resulting in
decreased motilities) imply that the S variants display a mod-
ified expression of regulatory genes involved in the rapid ini-
tiation of biofilm formation.
In addition to the accelerated initiation of biofilm formation
by a more efficient attachment to the surface, we investigated
whether the S variants produced higher concentrations of al-
ginate. In agitated liquid cultures, extracellular production of
uronic acids polymers did not differ significantly between the S
and L variants (Table 1). These results are in agreement with
the predominant role of alginate in the consolidation of a
biofilm rather than in the initial adhesion process.
Phase variation. Phase variation is a diversity-generating
mechanism ensuring that a portion of a bacterial population
will be adapted to survive under new environmental conditions
(13). Mechanisms regulated by phase variation are essentially
stochastic within a population yet at least partially modulated
by environmental signals. We observed that under appropriate
environmental and growth conditions, cells of each phenotype
could switch to the other phenotype at a fairly high frequency,
suggesting that the shift between S and L variant phenotypes is
regulated by a phase variation mechanism.
Phenotypic variations of surface structures are common in
many pathogenic bacteria. They have been observed in E. coli
adhesins, in Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium flagel-
lum expression, and in antigenic and phase variation of Neis-
seria adhesins (22). We have uncovered many activities coor-
dinately regulated by a putative phase variation mechanism,
indicating that a major regulator might be the target of the
switch (Table 2). Very few examples of phase variation mech-
anisms regulating simultaneously multiple phenotypic determi-
nants have been reported. Interestingly, in most cases, the
phenotypic switch influences the tactic response (23, 24). In the
mushroom pathogen P. tolaasii, a spontaneous and reversible
duplication within a two-component sensor regulator, causing
a frameshift mutation, regulates many phenotypic traits, in-
cluding attachment, colonial form, and chemotaxis (19). To
our knowledge, no typical phenotypic variation switching
mechanism has been found in P. aeruginosa.
The motility phenotype that we observed for our S variants,
especially S2, is strikingly similar to the one described by
Rashid and Kornberg (39) for a polyphosphate kinase knock-
out mutant of P. aeruginosa PAO1. They proposed that
polyphosphate kinase, or its product polyphosphate, might be
required for the expression of rpoS, as in E. coli. The alterna-
tive sigma factor RpoS was initially identified as a central
regulator of stationary-phase-responsive genes and is now as-
sociated with the general stress response (28). Our observa-
tions of increased pyoverdine and pyocyanin production and
decreased swimming and twitching motilities were also remi-
TABLE 2. Comparison of phenotypic characteristics between the L
and S variantsa
L variantS variants
Colony shape Large, flat, irregular Small, rounded
Adherence to surfaces
Initiation of biofilm formation
Sensitivity to H2O2stress
aThe L variant predominates on agar plates or in agitated liquid cultures; S
variants predominate in biofilms or in static liquid cultures.
b—, absence of phenotype; ?, presence of phenotype; ??, expression of
phenotype more pronounced than ?.
cRhamnolipid production is significantly lower than in the L variant for the S2
1202DE´ZIEL ET AL.J. BACTERIOL.
niscent of a recently described rpoS mutant of P. aeruginosa
PAO1 (44). Interestingly, It has been hypothesized that a
sigma factor might control the expression of genes responsible
for the biofilm phenotype (5). This prompted us to investigate
further the possibility that the S variants could be affected in
the synthesis of, or response to, RpoS. Like Suh et al. (44), we
observed an increased sensitivity to H2O2(Table 1). However,
only our log-phase-grown S cells were more sensitive than the
L cells. Also in contrast with the RpoS-negative mutant, we
obtained a substantial decrease in elastase production but not
in alginate accumulation in liquid medium (Table 1). More-
over, the responses to heat shock (53°C) and osmotic stress (3
M NaCl) did not differ significantly between the S and L
variants (data not shown). These results thus invalidate the
S1 is different from S2. Although the S1 form is the more
abundant phenotypic small variant that we observed, other
morphotypes were obtained when the parental L variant was
cultivated on hexadecane, in static cultures, or as a biofilm. The
S2 variant displayed many differences with the S1 variant, and
most of its phenotypic idiosyncrasies were expressed with more
amplitude (Table 2). As demonstrated by the retention of
adherence in the twitching zone (Fig. 4D) and in the biofilm
kinetic assay (Fig. 2), S2 appears to have an impaired detach-
ment phenotype and to form defective biofilms. The fact that
this variant did not build the fine lattice-like network of cells
typically found behind the rafts in twitching motility expansion
zones (41) may also be related to this defect. These features
could be explained by the much lower reversion frequency to
the L phenotype displayed by S2. It suggests that the S2 variant
is blocked in the S phase; a mutation might impede its ability
to undergo phase variation.
Biofilm phenotype. Bacteria in biofilms are phenotypically
different from their freely swimming counterpart (5, 38). Our
results indicate that the biofilm way of growth selects for a
specific phenotypic population that is highly adherent but with
reduced motility. Why would chemotactically deficient cells be
selected for in biofilms? Chemotaxis is essentially required in
environments that are scarce in nutrients. One of the features
of biofilms is to provide an environment where nutrients are
continuously trapped by the exopolysaccharide matrix and
available to the bacteria (5). Obviously, cells inside a biofilm do
not require extensive motility until the time they leave to col-
onize another available surface (49). Mucoid and rough P.
aeruginosa strains isolated from cystic fibrosis patients, thus
selected for by a biofilm environment (17), lack flagella or are
deficient in chemotaxis (16, 30).
S variants demonstrated a preference for growth at inter-
faces, such as a biofilm (liquid-solid), as a surface pellicle
(air-liquid), or on hexadecane (liquid-liquid), suggesting that
high surface hydrophobicity is a major characteristic of this
phenotype. In contrast, the L variant was predominantly found
freely dispersed in liquid medium and was not able to form a
biofilm. We propose that the S and L phenotypic forms of P.
aeruginosa are adapted to different environmental niches and
that growth as a biofilm selects for a phenotypically distinct
subpopulation usually found in minority in counterselective
environments such as homogeneously agitated liquid cultures
or agar plates. Biofilms thus act as an ecological niche colo-
nized by a specific phenotypic population.
Our results suggest that transition between the planktonic
and the biofilm phenotype is regulated by phase variation.
Therefore, phenotypic diversity determined by phase variation
ensures that cells well adapted to initiate the formation of a
biofilm are already present as soon as environmental condi-
tions are favorable. This may contribute to explain the major
shift in gene expression and physiological properties displayed
by bacteria growing as biofilms. Although the molecular mech-
anisms underlying the regulation of the phase variation control
mechanism involved in switching between the L and S pheno-
types remain to be elucidated, this work provides useful infor-
mation that will assist in molecular characterization of the
process of biofilm formation in P. aeruginosa.
We are grateful to Re ´jean Beaudet for photographs, Robert Alain
for electron microscopy, and Francine Turcotte-Rivard for technical
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