Chapter 1 Introduction to Biofilms
Section 3 A Brief History of Biofilms
Page 2 History

A Brief History of Biofilms

Biofilms were actually observed long ago, before science was well formed and people had the tools to study them in detail. In 1684 Anthony van Leewenhoek remarked on the vast accumulation of microorganisms in dental plaque in a report to the Royal Society of London: "The number of these animicules in the scurf of a man's teeth are so many that I believe they exceed the number of men in a kingdom." In a 1940 issue of the Journal of Bacteriology, authors H. Heukelekian and A. Heller wrote, "Surfaces enable bacteria to develop in substrates otherwise too dilute for growth. Development takes place either as bacterial slime or colonial growth attached to surfaces." In other words, when bacteria of all sorts can congregate in a colony as they attach to some surface, they begin to exhibit different properties than they do as individuals floating in isolation in some solution (e.g., water).  (In some ways it's too bad that this early work did not receive more recognition. For one thing, you just have to love that word "scurf" used by van Leewenhoek. It is so much more colorful than "biofilm.")

It was not until the late decades of the 20th century, however, that the study of biofilms began in earnest as a serious scientific endeavor.  By this time scientists and engineers possessed adequate technology to effectively study microbial communities and to begin to understand the significance of biofilms. As is true of any new field of inquiry, though, it has taken time for emerging results about biofilms to catch on amongst researchers and educators at large. One notable effort was the establishment in 1990 by the National Science Foundation of an Engineering Research Center under the direction of biofilm research pioneer William Charaklis dedicated to the study of biofilms at Montana State University in the United States.  Originally funded by a ten million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation, the center is now thrives as the Center for Biofilm Engineering and is supported through individual grants obtained by Center scientists and by a number of industrial affiliates who have interest in keeping abreast of the latest advancements in biofilm researcg.  Other similar research groups now exists in England, Germany, and other countries.

The fact that recognition of the importance of the biofilm phenomenon is so recent continues to have ramifications on education, health, and industry.  Biofilm topics are still rarely covered in key university curricula, such as microbiology, biology, environmental science, health, medicine, and dentistry.  Industries involved in developing products for the treatment of bacteria have only gradually been realizing that their products—which traditionally have been tested only on bacteria in isolation—may not work well on the same bacteria found as part of a biofilm in real-life environments.  And health professionals are often still unprepared to deal with effects of detrimental biofilms in their settings. This is all changing, and you are becoming agents of this important change as you learn about biofilms.


The study of biofilms has grown markedly in recent years due to increased awareness of the pervasiveness and impact of biofilms on natural and industrial systems, as well as human health. Biofilms cost the U.S. literally billions of dollars every year in energy losses, equipment damage, product contamination and medical infections. But biofilms also offer huge potential for cleaning up hazardous waste sites, filtering municipal and industrial water and wastewater, and forming biobarriers to protect soil and groundwater from contamination. The complexity of biofilm activity and behavior requires research contributions from many disciplines such as biochemistry, engineering, mathematics and microbiology. New insights into the mysteries of biofilm are being published regularly in a wide variety of science and engineering journals.

As we said, if you find this interesting, there will be a place for you in this exciting and rapidly growing field. Read on.

Biofilm Lifecycle

J. Pennington, Center for Biofilm Engineering, Montana State University, Bozeman

Figure 2. A Slime Smile Cartoon.
From the lighter side.