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Danger by Degrees

The myriad threats posed by biofilms.

By Wendy Orent // Fall 2006

During the past two decades, the study of biofilms has revolutionized the understanding of how bacteria grow in the body and why it is so difficult to cure stubborn infections. Though only a handful of human biofilm infections have been identified thus far, they range from mild to lethal.


Ordinary dental plaque, without periodontisis
Short-term urinary-tract infection from a brief hospital catheterization


Chronic middle-ear infections in children, which may cause hearing loss or even lead to meningitis
Persisitant prostatitis or urinary-tract infections, which may cause chronic inflammation or life threatening tube blockage
Periodontis, which may be difficult to cure and which some scientists theorize is linked to heart disease and diabetes
Infection caused by biofilms on urinary implants, hip and knee replacements and other long-term implanted devices, which may be impossible to cure short of surgical removal of the implant
Osteomyelitis (bone infection)


Infection of implanted heart valves (endocarditis): 50% mortality even when treated with antibiotics
Pseudomonas aeruginosa (biofilms in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients)


Slime and the City


Biofilms are microbial metropolises: teeming, diverse and, when attached to surgical implants, nearly impossible to subdue.

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