♫MUSIC♫ MILES O’BRIEN: In the Ren Lab at Syracuse University, things are clicking right along. These are bacteria. And, new research underway here is showing these seemingly simple microbes are actually pretty sophisticated. DACHENG REN: As we learn more and more about this, we all realize that microbes are very resilient, they are just smart. They are way smarter than we thought they are. MILES O’BRIEN: With support from the National Science Foundation, Chemical Engineer Dacheng Ren at Syracuse and a multidisciplinary team are studying biofilms – colonies of microbes, like bacteria, that grow together in a matrix produced by the cells themselves. DACHENG REN: Basically pretty much every surface can be colonized by a biofilm. MILES O’BRIEN: Until now, biofilms have been poorly understood. Yet they can be costly, and dangerous. Biofilms in oil and water pipelines can rot the metal from inside, destroying infrastructure and potentially introducing contaminants into the water supply. Gum disease is another problem linked to biofilms. And, they are highly tolerant to antibiotics. DACHENG REN: Medical device related infections, people with hip replacement, knee replacements. If they are having infections very likely, they will be biofilm related infections. MILES O’BRIEN: Team members use supercomputer models to study the molecular structure of biofilms. And they create synthetic biofilms in the lab to better understand their formation and behavior. Coming up with effective ways to control biofilms starts with understanding the complicated communications among biofilm cells as well as interactions between bacteria and host cells. DACHENG REN: They enjoy the protection by that matrix, but also use that matrix to provide close cell-to-cell contact, and they can actually communicate between the cells and do something as a group rather than individual cells. MILES O’BRIEN: Also in the matrix are a small number of microbes called “persister cells” – otherwise normal, live cells that have essentially gone dormant. Antibiotics don’t kill them. DACHENG REN: So, persister cells will survive the treatment, and then when you stop the treatment they can come back and reestablish the population. MILES O’BRIEN: Ren and his team are working on a broad range of approaches to disrupting biofilms – from interrupting the cell communications to manipulating the persister cells to make them more vulnerable to antibiotics. In this multidisciplinary environment, the ideas are, well… infectious. For Science Nation, I’m Miles O’Brien.