Under (Re)construction

At the University of Duisburg-Essen, a remarkable, interdisciplinary and innovative cooperation between microbiologists and physical chemists concerning the research of bacterial biofilms has evolved. Based on this successful work, the Biofilm Centre was founded in 2001, based on the chair for Aquatic Microbiology which concentrates on physic-chemical properties of biofilms with particular focus on their EPS matrix, and on pathogens in biofilms. The topic of Molecular Enzyme Technology and Biochemistry (MEB) is represented by Prof. Dr. Bettina Siebers who is concentrating on archaea, their metabolism and biofilm formation, and Aquatic Biotechnology, represented by Prof. Wolfgang Sand, which focuses on biocorrosion and biological leaching. The already established connections with the departments of chemistry, physics and engineering provide interdisciplinary approaches which are necessary for successful research on biofilms. An important link to practice is provided by the IWW Centre for Water. This is a university-affiliated institute where Prof. Flemming heads the Department of Microbiology.

The vast majority of microorganisms on Earth live at interfaces as biofilms. In many cases, biotechnology uses interfaces, ranging from the use of immobilized (surface-bound) enzymes and microorganisms to waste water purification with biofilm reactors and microbial leaching of precious metals. Extracellular enzymes in biofilms seem to profit from protection and activation by the matrix of extracellular polymeric substances. The potential of a deeper understanding of the role of interfaces and the processes occurring there in terms of optimization is still underestimated in biotechnology.

All of these processes can occur at the wrong time and place. In medicine, colonization of catheters, implants and instruments is a major health hazard. In technical systems, similar processes can occur. They are addressed as biofouling and biocorrosion (more precisely: microbially influenced corrosion, MIC). Cooling systems, water treatment plants, water storage and transport, the production of food, pharmaceuticals and microelectronics, ship hulls and even space technology are concerned. Losses in the dimension of billions of dollars are attributed to the effects of unwanted biofilms. Such processes underlie the same natural laws as biotechnologically exploited biofilms; thus, both profit from basic biofilm research.

A more detailed knowledge about the mechanisms of microbial adhesion and surface-bound growth, and about the interaction between surfaces and biofilms leads to immediate application in both protection against unwanted effects and improvement of biotechnological processes, increasing their commercial potential. Thus, the Biofilm Centre dedicates it's research to the interactions between microorganisms and interfaces and among themselves.