Streptococcus pneumoniae biofilm formation and dispersion during colonization and disease

Yashuan Chao, Laura R. Marks, Melinda M. Pettigrew, Anders P. Hakansson

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138 Scopus citations


Streptococcus pneumoniae (the pneumococcus) is a common colonizer of the human nasopharynx. Despite a low rate of invasive disease, the high prevalence of colonization results in millions of infections and over one million deaths per year, mostly in individuals under the age of 5 and the elderly. Colonizing pneumococci form well-organized biofilm communities in the nasopharyngeal environment, but the specific role of biofilms and their interaction with the host during colonization and disease is not yet clear. Pneumococci in biofilms are highly resistant to antimicrobial agents and this phenotype can be recapitulated when pneumococci are grown on respiratory epithelial cells under conditions found in the nasopharyngeal environment. Pneumococcal biofilms display lower levels of virulence in vivo and provide an optimal environment for increased genetic exchange both in vitro and in vivo, with increased natural transformation seen during co-colonization with multiple strains. Biofilms have also been detected on mucosal surfaces during pneumonia and middle ear infection, although the role of these biofilms in the disease process is debated. Recent studies have shown that changes in the nasopharyngeal environment caused by concomitant virus infection, changes in the microflora, inflammation, or other host assaults trigger active release of pneumococci from biofilms. These dispersed bacteria have distinct phenotypic properties and transcriptional profiles different from both biofilm and broth-grown, planktonic bacteria, resulting in a significantly increased virulence in vivo. In this review we discuss the properties of pneumococcal biofilms, the role of biofilm formation during pneumococcal colonization, including their propensity for increased ability to exchange genetic material, as well as mechanisms involved in transition from asymptomatic biofilm colonization to dissemination and disease of otherwise sterile sites. Greater understanding of pneumococcal biofilm formation and dispersion will elucidate novel avenues to interfere with the spread of antibiotic resistance and vaccine escape, as well as novel strategies to target the mechanisms involved in induction of pneumococcal disease.

Original languageEnglish
Article number194
JournalFrontiers in cellular and infection microbiology
StatePublished - Apr 2014


  • Biofilm
  • Colonization
  • Streptococcus
  • Virulence
  • Virus


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