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Aims: The purpose of this study was to compare the efficacy, in terms of bacterial biofilm penetration and killing, of alkaline hypochlorite (pH 11) and chlorosulfamate (pH 5·5) formulations.

Methods and Results: Two species biofilms of Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Klebsiella pneumoniae were grown by flowing a dilute medium over inclined stainless steel slides for 6 d. Microelectrode technology was used to measure concentration profiles of active chlorine species within the biofilms in response to treatment at a concentration of 1000 mg total chlorine l–1. Chlorosulfamate formulations penetrated biofilms faster than did hypochlorite. The mean penetration time into ~1 mm-thick biofilms for chlorosulfamate (6 min) was only one-eighth as long as for the same concentration of hypochlorite (48 min). Chloride ion penetrated biofilms rapidly (5 min) with an effective diffusion coefficient in the biofilm that was close to the value for chloride in water. Biofilm bacteria were highly resistant to killing by both antimicrobial agents. Biofilms challenged with 1000 mg l–1 alkaline hypochlorite or chlorosulfamate for 1 h experienced 0·85 and 1·3 log reductions in viable cell numbers, respectively. Similar treatment reduced viable numbers of planktonic bacteria to non-detectable levels (log reduction greater than 6) within 60 s. Aged planktonic and resuspended laboratory biofilm bacteria were just as susceptible to hypochlorite as fresh planktonic cells.

Conclusions: Chlorosulfamate transport into biofilm was not retarded whereas hypochlorite transport clearly was retarded. Superior penetration by chlorosulfamate was hypothesized to be due to its lower capacity for reaction with constituents of the biofilm. Poor biofilm killing despite direct measurement of effective physical penetration of the antimicrobial agent into the biofilm demonstrates that bacteria in the biofilm are protected by some mechanism other than simple physical shielding by the biofilm matrix.

Significance and Impact of the Study: This study lends support to the theory that the penetration of antimicrobial agents into microbial biofilms is controlled by the reactivity of the antimicrobial agent with biofilm components. The finding that chlorine-based biocides can penetrate, but fail to kill, bacteria in biofilms should motivate the search for other mechanisms of protection from killing by antimicrobial agents in biofilms.