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Engineering Better Health - 3

“The systems approach promoted by NSF has become our modus operandi and has enabled us to push the field forward in a coordinated way that differs completely from the spot-by-spot approach of much research funding.”

Bill Costerton, Director, Center for Biofilm Engineering, Montana State University–Bozeman

Imagine a future . . .
in which a brand-new class of antibiotics precisely targets and disrupts the ability of bacteria to form persistent, debilitating, treatment-resistant infections—from the ear infections that plague toddlers to chronic prostatitis and infections that complicate replacement of hips and heart valves in their grandparents.


Most bacterial infections that make us sick enough to visit the doctor are caused by organisms growing in biofilms—slimy layers of bacteria and glue-like substances. Yet, today’s arsenal of antibiotics is less effective against bacteria in biofilms than the free-floating bacterial infections (such as typhoid) they were designed to attack.

The Center for Biofilm Engineering (CBE) at Montana State University–Bozeman is investigating the basic structure and function of biofilms to engineer solutions to biofilm-related problems. For instance, CBE researchers deciphered the hormone-like signals that bacteria exchange to coordinate their roles in biofilm formation—knowledge that is now guiding the search for hormone blockers to stop the formation of biofilms before they take hold. Two such drugs are expected to reach the marketplace within the next two years.

More recently, CBE scientists have found major differences in gene expression between bacteria in biofilms and free-floating bacteria. This fundamental breakthrough provides additional clues in the search for brand-new antibiotics that will be more effective in preventing and treating biofilm-based bacterial infections.

NSF-ENG provided major funding to launch CBE and support its first 11 years of revolutionary research. The Center is now financially independent of NSF and is supported through partnerships with 26 industrial companies, including several major biomedical companies.


This highly simplified drawing illustrates
breakthrough findings from research supported by NSF-ENG on how bacteria in biofilms are organized for survival and resistance to current generation antibiotics. Talking and listening heads and arrows represent mechanisms by which microbes from different colonies and even different species (shown in red, blue, and green) are able to coordinate their activity, including resistance to drugs, in a densely packed environment of slimy biofilm (shown as mushroom-like blobs).

Scanning electron micrograph of slime-enclosed bacteria in a biofilm on the surface of an infected tissue.

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