Bacteries, Biofilm and Other Threats

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Bacteria

Beneficial bacteria are essential to many of the processes that support life. Everything from our digestive system, to organic gardener’s compost piles, to our favorite yogurt all rely on friendly bacteria to support life. In fact, bacteria were some of the first life forms to appear on earth. These very small organisms made of only one cell exist either as aerobic bacteria (requires the presence of oxygen to live and grow) or anaerobic (can survive without the presence of oxygen in their immediate environment). Their ability to adapt creates both life giving opportunities and life threatening health problems.

Harmful bacteria have posed serious threats to our health for many centuries. Yet with the development of modern antibiotics, many of the diseases of ancient times are today largely controlled. However, due to the misuse of these “miracle cures”, antibiotics have also allowed bacteria to once again adapt for survival, creating “super bugs” such as MRSA.

Viruses

A virus is a microorganism smaller than a bacterium, which cannot grow or reproduce apart from a living cell. A virus invades a living cell and uses that cell’s chemical machinery to keep itself alive and replicate. It may reproduce with fidelity or with errors (mutations), and this ability to mutate makes treatment more difficult. Viruses case many common human infections. Examples of viral illnesses range from the common cold, which is usually caused by one of the rhinoviruses, to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Food-Borne Diseases

A food-borne disease caused by consuming contaminated foods. There are more than 250 known food-borne diseases. The majority of them are infectious and are caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites and can be highly contagious. All food-borne diseases enter the body through the gastrointestinal tract with the first symptoms including nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea.

Biofilms

Biofilms are a collection of microorganisms surrounded by the slime they secrete, attached to either an inert or living surface. Biofilms present challenges due to their inherent characteristic of protecting inner organisms from contact with disinfectants. Vital Oxide’ active ingredient, chlorine dioxide, is effective at removing biofilms.

Mold & Mildew

Mold and mildew are fungi that can be found both indoors and outdoors. Molds grow best in warm, damp, and humid conditions, spreading and reproducing by making spores. Mildew requires moisture. The optimal growth range for mildew is 70 to 93 percent relative humidity. Mold spores can survive in harsh conditions, such as dry conditions, that do not support mold growth.

Odour

Unpleasant odors have been recognized as a warning sign of potential risk to human health. Odour sensations from environmental sources might cause health symptoms that are dependent on many environmental factors. Odors are not only warning signs but also may be the direct cause of some symptoms.

The following Q&A is from an interview with Anne Camper from the Center for Biofilm Engineering (CBE). Ms. Camper is an Associate Professor of Civil Engineering and an Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education, Mantana State University, Bozeman, Montana.

What is a biofilm?

Biofilm can best be described as “bugs on surfaces stuck on slime”. A biofilm is a complex structure of bacteria that functions as a community. Its sticky polymers attach it to a surface, and as it grows, it takes on the appearance of microscopic mushrooms and streamers.

Where does biofilm form?

Wherever there is water. It is found in virtually every aquatic environment. Fish tanks ares an obvious example, however, it forms in many places one may not expect, such as in the form of plaque on teeth almost immediately after brushing. It can also form inside the human body, making it of concern for medical implants. Yet, not all biofilm is bad. For instance, bio-mineralization may help recover precious metals. It begins with attachment where biofilm cells have congregated, followed by colonization, then growth. This process can be very short, usually within hours.

How is biofilm different from suspended (planktonic) bacteria?

Being attached rather than suspended males a world of difference. Biofilm organisms have an enhanced survival mechanism. Bacteria change as soon as they are attached to a surface. The most obvious change is that they excrete a slimy material. Biofilm bacteria turn on a whole different set of genes, which makes it a significantly different organism to deal with. Biofilm behavior is much more complex because they live in organized communities. They are resistant to biocides and antimicrobial agents. Disinfectants are effective for killing single cells, but not clumps because they only kill those on the outside. These outside cells sacrifice themselves for the rest of the colony.

How do you prevent or eliminate biofilm?

You can’t prevent it or eliminate it, but you can manage it. The best ways to do this is by modifying surfaces (there is not biofilm-proof surface, but some are easier to clean, such as stainless steel), adding biocides or chemicals to a watering system, mechanical cleaning, and various other pretreatment strategies such as reverse osmosis.