Dangerous beauty: Fungal flowers offer clues to biofilm formation on medical implants

At first glance, yeast growing on a jello-like medium look breathtakingly beautifullike gossamer flowers with radial spokes emanating from a central hub (see cover of Science). But a florid fungus can be a dangerous beauty, able to coat medical implants with thin films causing serious complications in patients with hip and valve replacements. In fact, every year thousands of deaths can be traced to fungal infections around medical implants.

Now, researchers at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research have found a key gene that allows fungi to stick to plastic surfaces and form thin coatings called biofilms. The gene, called FLO11, is required for fungal biofilm formation. The results, published in the February 2 issue of Science, come from Gerald Fink and Todd Reynolds, and lay the groundwork for finding ways to prevent biofilm formation.

"Fungi represent a real medical threat because they can stick to plastic. A fungal infection can lead to complications for contact lens wearers and more seriously patients with hip replacements. Often, the only way to treat the problem is to remove the implant," says Fink, director of the Whitehead Institute. "Our work represents a key step toward understanding how fungi stick to plastic and offers hope that it may be possible to prevent such infections in the future."

In this study, the researchers found that bakers yeast (known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae) adhered to plastic plates, suggesting that like their infectious fungal cousins, yeast, too, can form biofilms. This came as welcome news to geneticists who have long used yeast as a model for infectious fungi such as Candida. Yeast offer scientists many experimental advantagesa completely sequenced genome and a sexual reproduction cycle that allows genetic experiments. Also, many disease-causing organisms that form biofilms are difficult to work with in the laboratory.

Knowing that bacteria use proteins on their surface to form biofilms, Reynolds, a

Contact: Nadia Halim
Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research

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