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November 26, 2012

The Slime That Smiles

by Heidi Arjes

Figure 1: Cell death occurs between the emerging digits during development. A fluorescent chemical was used to visualize regions of cell death in these embryonic mouse limbs. Source.

Have you ever wondered how individual fingers form? If you have taken a developmental biology class, you know that the hand first develops as a mitten-like structure with the future fingers connected (Figure 1). Later, during normal development, the cells in the areas between the fingers undergo programmed cell death, and thus leave behind five fingers on each hand. Programmed cell death is important not only in development and long term viability of animals, but also plays a role in unicellular organisms. For example, in the social amoeba Dictyostelium, a subset of cells undergoes a type of programmed cell death similar to autophagy to form fruiting body stalks. The remaining dead cells in the stalk are highly vacuolated and provide support for the spore body (figure 2).

Figure 2: The stalk cells of Dictyostelium undergo programmed cell death. In panel C, dead cells are labeled with propidium iodine, which labels DNA of cells with compromised membranes. The vacuoles are unlabeled. Source.

Programmed cell death has also been observed in bacteria. Some examples have been summarized in this review, including the toxin-antitoxin addiction systems. Evidence of bacterial programmed cell death supports the theory that prokaryotic organisms possess the capability to insure their demise under conditions of overwhelming cell stress. While programmed cell death may not benefit a single bacterial cell, in several cases, it can be of utmost importance to the surrounding bacterial population. Many social behaviors and developmental processes, including programmed cell death, have been characterized in biofilms, which are organized bacterial communities where cells communicate via special signaling pathways and differentiate into several distinct cell types. For instance, previous research on biofilms formed by the sporulating bacteria Bacillus subtilis revealed that starving cells signal their neighbors to undergo programmed cell death. Nutrients released by the dying cells in this striking display of prokaryotic altruism allow the remaining cells to temporarily delay sporulation. These studies suggest that prokaryotic systems like the ones above may have evolved into the more elaborate programmed cell death signaling cascades of eukaryotes.

Figure 3: Letters and smiley faces artificially engineered on B. subtilis biofilms. The authors harness the power of cell death to engineer wrinkle designs on the biofilm surface. Source.

A new report initially caught my eye due to the Science magazine feature A wrinkle in slime and all the smiley faces that had been artificially induced in B. subtilis biofilms (Figure 3). How were the authors able to accomplish this amazing feat of biofilm engineering? By selectively labeling dead and dying cells in biofilms with fluorescent chemicals, the authors show that areas of cell death ultimately become the location of wrinkles in biofilms (Figure 4). Cells in biofilms secrete extracellular matrix components such as polysaccharides and amyloid fibers. When cells grow and divide, the additional mass pushes on the existing matrix, generating an ever increasing force on cells. Localized areas of cell death allow the biofilm surface to buckle, relieving the excess mechanical force and alleviating the stress on individual cells. In support of this model, the authors demonstrate that mutant biofilms without an extracellular matrix exhibit uniform cell death (instead of the wild-type localized pockets) and form a wrinkle-free biofilm. Thus, the extracellular matrix is crucial to restrict the areas of cell death. The excess force distributed through the extracellular matrix underlies localized cell death in wild-type biofilms. In addition, the authors show that patches of cell death corresponded to areas where originally there was an increased cell density. In a neat demonstration, they artificially place initial areas of high cell density in cool patterns such as letters and smiles. As the biofilms developed, these areas were more likely to undergo cell death and wrinkle into the author’s designs.


Figure 4: Wild-type biofilm wrinkling (A) occurs in areas where cell death has previously occurred (E and F). Cell death underlies wrinkle formation by promoting biofilm buckling (C and D). Source.

This paper shows that cell death helps generate 3D biofilm wrinkles by giving the biofilm surface room to buckle. I couldn't help but notice its parallels with programmed cell death during development. The cells in the biofilm encounter a mechanical stress due to increasing cell density. Somehow the cells “sense” this increased density, perhaps through forces generated by the extracellular matrix. These cells die in order to relieve the tension in the surface of the biofilm and help create wrinkles. In addition to the developmental processes of biofilms reviewed here, this provides an example of the importance of social interactions in bacterial biofilm development. In contrast to the programmed cell death undertaken to delay sporulation, by forming wrinkles, localized death can benefit the entire biofilm in nutrient rich environments as well as nutrient poor environments. Notably, biofilm wrinkles have been shown to deter the efficacy of antibiotics dissolved in liquids or applied by gases, as well as ethanol and other antiseptic cleansers. The resulting increase in surface area may also help cells obtain nutrients and expel waste.

The results of this study bring up many interesting questions. I am curious if the cells that die to enable wrinkling exhibit the hallmarks of bacterial apoptosis observed in this paper. I also wonder about the signals that induce these specific cells to die: is pure mechanical force the trigger or does this process involve a signal secreted from neighboring cells, similar to the cannibalistic cells that live off nutrients from dying neighbors mentioned above. Answering these questions will add new insights on how cell death to form biofilm wrinkles compares to known mechanisms of bacterial programmed cell death. In addition, the author’s demonstration of engineering biofilm structures can be used in synthetic biology and material sciences and could propel new cutting edge experiments and designs in tissue engineering.

Buddy said it best in the movie Elf, “I just like to smile. Smiling’s my favorite!” I am sure these bacterial emoticons have made countless people smile and marvel at the prokaryotic wonders that never cease to amaze.


Heidi Arjes is a graduate student in the Levin Lab in the Department of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis.


Great stuff! It appears that The Selfish Gene may be a good deal more broadminded than originally supposed. Or is that a good deal less narrow-minded? Totally fun to look at social dynamics in terms of eons, rather than plain old epics.

Anyway, I was musing over apoptosis while listening (as a newbie) to one of the TWIMs, and wondered about pronunciation and how comprehension might be expanded with cognizance of etymology.

Not to be any more picky than I am with myself, I stumbled over the verbalization "aypop-tosis." I don't think I ever got any fussier in my own verbalizations, but it appeared suddenly that "apo-ptosis" might do the concept more justice. (It's okay with me if we keep the English convention of silencing the "p" in "ptosis," although this brings up the original problem again.)

So what do we suppose ptosis is anyway, and how is it modified by prefixing apo?

Yours in delegation of simple research,

In these situations, are cells really dying for the benefit of others? Or are they being killed, forced to die by their neighbors that are fitter in some way or in better situations? (from a naive reader)

Heidi replies: Regardless of whether the cells are dying or being killed, the resulting wrinkles benefit the entire biofilm by making the surface much more repellant to antibiotics and antiseptics than mutant biofilms that cannot wrinkle (see the article linked at the end of the fourth paragraph in the post). The question of whether the cells are dying or being killed by their neighbors has not yet been elucidated. I can imagine a scenario in which fitter neighbors near the regions of high cell density in the biofilms secrete a signal that induces cell death in the neighboring cells and in this case the cells would be forced to die by their neighbors. On the other hand, the cells could be packed together so tightly by the matrix components that the increasing external force on cells triggers death. In this case cells would indeed be dying for the benefit of others as this cell death relieves tension at the biofilm surface (although one could argue that the cells are indirectly being killed by neighbors, since cell crowding causes the excess force on cells). Death could also require both a signaling molecule and the increasing pressure on cells. Elucidating the signal and the resulting mechanism of death in these cells will no doubt provide an exciting addition the field of bacterial programmed cell death.

biofilm smiley faces is funny.

prokaryotes to eukaryotes: are you suggesting that there are homologous proteins involved in the signal cascades for cell death between prokaryotes and eukaryotes? is there even homology between dictyostelium and vertebrates?

and i've always wondered whether the cells that become stalk cells in dictyo are ones in the population that are too starved to make spores, or too young in the cell cycle to do it...

Heidi replies:
There are indeed related proteins (not necessarily homologs, but at the very least proteins with similar functions) involved in programmed cell death in prokaryotes and eukaryotes. In fact, this paper LINK1 suggests that common facets of programmed cell death exist between bacteria, plants, and animals and gives evidence that the Bcl-2 and holin proteins are evolutionarily related. The paper proposes that eukaryotic programmed cell death arose after the emdosymbiotic acquisition of bacteria to create the mitochondria and chloroplasts. Additionally, the paper references some articles that describe apoptosis-like features in bacteria (references 10 and 11). I am not a dictyostelium expert, so I will refrain from commenting on that part of your question, but if anyone has further insights into dicty, feel free to share!

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