Not with a bang but a whimper." - T.S. Eliot
It could be a sequel to Andromeda Strain: biofilm-producing bacteria that talk, move, hide, and touch. Their mission? To destroy us. But it's not fiction. It's real. With improved technology, researchers are delving deeper into this enigmatic intracellular world of "intelligent" microbial lifeforms that are resistant to antibiotics. What they're learning is both amazing and terrifying.
Bacterial biofilms are microorganisms that stick together and form a slimy mass. They are everywhere in nature: on rocks, in streams, on trees, our teeth (plaque), even in our kitchen drains. Inside our bodies they are produced by a group of pathogenic bacteria that use the sticky, gelatinous biofilms as protection from both antibiotics and our own immune system. This makes them especially difficult to eradicate and potentially lethal.
Biofilm bacteria have now been linked to dozens of diseases including Lyme, pneumonia, chronic fatigue syndrome, ADHD, inner ear infections, kidney stones, endocarditis, fibromyalgia, urinary tract infections, and multiple sclerosis. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more than 65 to 80 percent of all microbial infections are now caused by biofilm-producing bacteria.
New research indicates that biofilm-producing bacteria move freely in the blood system until they come in contact with a solid surface. It's this ability to "feel" something solid that converts mobile bacteria to a stationary form that essentially finds a place to camp and produce the bacterial biofilm shield. Biofilm-anchored bacteria show much greater resistance to antibiotics (as much as a 1000 times more) than their free-moving more vulnerable counterparts. As the bacteria community grows inside the mucous-like mass, individual cells chemically talk to each other (quorum sensing) regarding the presence of antibiotics. When the antibiotics are no longer a threat, the bacteria break off a piece of the bacterial biofilm and ride in it like a spaceship to other areas in order to spread the infection.
So what are we dealing with, an extraterrestrial presence or are biofilm-producing bacteria an evolutionary product of our own making from overuse of antibiotics?
Probably Not Aliens
"As much as an extraterrestrial presence would be a phenomenal finding, I'm afraid the evidence is more boring," says Dr. Eugene Gamble, a UK trained specialist periodontal surgeon with a microbiology background. "Biofilm-producing bacteria have evolved this way to counter immune systems and survive harsh environments."
Dr. Elena Brei, a Toronto-based research scientist specializing in bacterial interaction, agrees. "Biofilms are an evolutionary mechanism that have been evolving for quite some time." says Brei. "It's a defense mechanism against environmental conditions. Overuse of antibiotics causes a formation of antibiotic-resistant strains such as MRSA."
Says Nick Angelis, a certified registered nurse anesthetist in the Pensacola, Florida, area:
It could simply be that the weaker but wiser bacteria are surviving and reproducing while our 'antibacterial everything' culture has wiped out the hardy but stupid strains of pathogens. Recent science also reveals that plants have similar behaviors: It's not that bacteria are smarter now, but that we didn't realize before that their protective mechanisms are incredibly sophisticated and adaptable.Dr. Abby Kramer, a holistic practitioner and chiropractor in Glenview, Illinois, believes it's not just overuse of antibiotics that has opened hell's gates to biofilm protected bacteria.
"I do believe that biofilm-producing bacteria are caused by overuse of antibiotics, among other inflammatory reactions in the body including toxic chemical exposure, inflammatory diets, and stress."
This Just In From Princeton
In a study published September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a Princeton research team became the first to actually observe how bacteria construct a biofilm fortress, cell by cell. Thanks to a special microscopy method pioneered at Princeton, researchers watched a single bacterial cell as it grew into a mature biofilm of 10,000 cells with an ordered architecture. At first, the bacterial colony expanded horizontally on the given surface in the experiment. As each cell split, the resulting duplicate cells firmly attached to the surface alongside their parent cells. Squeezed by increasing numbers of offspring bacteria, however, the cells at the heart of the expanding colony were forced to detach from the surface and point vertically. The bacterial colony thus went from a flat, two-dimensional mass to an expanding, three-dimensional blob, all held together by gunk in the developing bacterial biofilm.
The researchers had hoped to find an Achilles heel that could be targeted for future therapeutic intervention; some modality that could help penetrate biofilms and kill the bacteria. And they may have found something. They discovered that a single gene, dubbed RbmA, was the key to how new cells connected to develop a strong three-dimensional biofilm. When researchers deactivated the gene, a less resilient, floppier bacterial biofilm formed.
Researchers Need To Peddle Faster
While the Princeton study is encouraging, the fact remains that there are currently no conventional treatments for biofilm-related infections that work consistently.
"This is an ongoing area of research in many labs but, in general, once a bacterial biofilm has formed it is incredibly difficult to remove," says Dave Westenberg, associate professor in biological sciences and biochemical engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.
This is troubling because in 2013 the Global Burden Of Disease Study, a massive investigation on the propagation of chronic disease, revealed for the first time that up to 95 percent of the population is sick from a spectrum of chronic conditions. Biofilm-producing pathogenic bacteria are everywhere, from insect vectors like ticks and mosquitoes to contaminated food. There is also a moronic convergence of many other factors prevalent in Western culture.
"Poor nutrition, processed foods, over consumption of sugar, environmental, and biochemical stressors (like insecticides and herbicides) all contribute to the increase and proliferation of 'bad' bacteria in the gut," says Brandon Mentore, a nationally recognized nutritionist, strength, and conditioning coach..
Bacterial Biofilm: Persistent Persister Cells
Generally, for antibiotics to be effective, they need to be administered early in the disease before bacteria fortify their biofilm fortresses. And even then, there are no guarantees. What happens, according to Dr. Andre Levchenko, a research professor of biomedical engineering at John Hopkins University, is the mainstream medical community has repeatedly tried to kill biofilms by giving patients high, constant doses of antibiotics.
"You can put a patient on high dose antibiotics, and it may seem that the infection has disappeared," says Levchenko. "But in a few months, it reappears, and it is usually in an antibiotic-resistant form."
That's because there are always a few resistant cells that remain, called persister cells. They regenerate and produce a biofilm even stronger than the previous one. Researchers now believe that the persister cells flourish with relative ease in immunocompromised patients because the immune system is unable to help the antibiotic "mop up" all the biofilm cells it has targeted.
Some believe in a more effective approach: the Marshall Protocol, named after Australian biomedical scientist Trevor Marshall, uses specific antibiotics in very low, pulsated doses. In other words, underkilling the bacteria so it doesn't react so profoundly.
Researchers are more puzzled over the minuscule impact of our immune system on biofilm bacteria. Marshall contends that bacteria without cell walls (known as L-form bacteria) may be working in unison with biofilm bacteria.
According to Marshall, some L-form bacteria are able to evade the immune system because, long ago, they evolved the ability to reside inside macrophages, the very white bloods cells of the immune system that are supposed to kill invading pathogens. Upon formation, L-form bacteria shed their cell walls, making them difficult for our immune system to identify. The fact that L-form bacteria lack cell walls also means that the beta-lactam antibiotics (a class of broad spectrum antibiotics), which work by targeting the bacterial cell wall, are completely ineffective at killing them.
Also, these L-form pathogens are capable of creating substances that bind and inactivate the vitamin D Receptor (VDR) - a fundamental receptor of the body that controls the activity of the innate immune system, or the body's first line of defense against intracellular infection. The L-form bacteria essentially act as front men for the biofilm bacteria. By initially weakening the immune system, it makes the settlement and growth of biofilm-producing bacteria easier. It's also possible that the bacteria in biofilms also produce these VDR-blocking substances, according to Marshall.
Looking Through The Other End Of The Microscope
Not surprisingly, alternative therapies are being explored. Many of them focus on penetrating the bacterial biofilm to allow our immune systems to take over and finish off the furtive pathogens - a natural kill. The most commonly used alternative therapies fall into these categories:
"High dose enzymes can be very effective at breaking down the biofilm layer," says Kramer. "InterFase Plus is my favorite."
Angelis also gives a thumbs-up to InterFase: "It contains enzymes designed to eat through the biofilm so bad bacteria have to compete with beneficial bacteria for nutrients."
Functional medicine practitioner Morgan Mellas and Elizabeth Moriarty, Clinical Herbalist & Formulator at HERBOLOGIE, both recommend Nattokinase and Serrapeptase.
"They are potent oral fibrinolytic enzyme supplements and reputed biofilm reducers," says Moriarty.
"Proteolytic enzymes that breakdown proteins that contribute to inflammationand mucus such as Serrapeptase can have an effect," says Mentore.
Probiotics are microorganisms introduced into the body for their beneficial qualities.
"We should take a serious look on how probiotics and eating probiotic rich foods can change poor gut (microbiome) bacteria," says Connie Rogers, a Certified Integrative Nutrition Holistic health coach and author of Path to a Healthy Mind & Body. "Studies have shown that when people take probiotics (supplements containing the good bacteria), their anxiety levels, perception of stress, and mental outlook improve, compared with people who did not take probiotics."
Angelis says another tactic is probiotic foods such as traditionally cultured vegetables. "If the good bacteria have a food supply, they last longer in the digestive tract and hopefully will repopulate the gut."
Kramer also likes colloidal silver, which many refer to as a natural antibiotic. Colloidal silver has 51 researched benefits including anti-inflammatory properties,boosting the immune system, promoting gut health, preventing biofilmplaque buildup,killing staph infections including MRSA, wiping out ear infections, and helping treat Lyme disease.
Herbs And Supplements
"Herbs like garlic, cilantro, and turmeric have a positive effect on unhealthy biofilms," says Mentore. "Short chain fatty acids have beneficial effects as well such as capric and lauric acid found in coconut oil."
According to Rogers, peppermint essential oils "can blast" a bacterial biofilm.
Moriarty says that botanically, species of the Sida plant (common wireweed, rock sida, country-mallow, etc.) are useful. "They increase glutathione levels in the blood, along with greater celandine, which is a biofilm inhibitor that also possesses anti-bacterial activity against a wide range of common biofilm-forming bacteria." She also recommends Cis-2 decenoic acid (C2DA), which is naturally occurring in a bee secretion known as royal jelly. "It disperses bacterial biofilm in many strains of microorganisms."
- Quercus rubra (red oak)
- Similax (sarsaparilla)
- Urtica dioca (stinging nettle)
- Unfiltered apple cider vinegar (orally)
- Oregano oil
Molecular hydrogen is an antioxidant supplement that is anti-inflammatory in nature. Mentore believes that any inflammatory type bacterial biofilm "could be counteracted by molecular hydrogen." The smallness of molecular hydrogen makes it an ideal bacterial foe. It is possibly the only antioxidant molecule that can reach inside the mitochondria (power generators) of a cell.
Molecular Hydrogen Foundation founder Tyler LeBaron says, "While H2 cannot directly breakup bacterial biofilms, hydrogen can support healthy immune function" to help battle bacterial infections.
About the author
Thomas Ropp Longtime journalist Thomas Ropp is an environmental advocate and proponent of living healthier. After spending most of his life in Arizona, he relocated to a Costa Rican rainforest ten years ago and helped with reforestation projects to expand the habitat of the endangered mono titi monkey. He has dual residency in the United States and Costa Rica.