Mechanism of enhancement of microbial cell hydrophobicity by cationic polymers

S. Goldberg, R. J. Doyle, M. Rosenberg*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Polycationic polymers have been noted for their effects in promoting cell adhesion to various surfaces, but previous studies have failed to describe a mechanism dealing with this type of adhesion. In the present study, three polycationic polymers (chitosan, poly-L-lysine, and lysozyme) were tested for their effects on microbial hydrophobicity, as determined by adhesion to hydrocarbon and polystyrene. Test strains (Escherichia coli, Candida albicans, and a nonhydrophobic mutant. MR-481, derived from Acinetobacter calcoaceticus RAG-1) were vortexed with hexadecane in the presence of the various polycations, and the extent of adhesion was measured turbidimetrically. Adhesion of all three test strains rose from near zero values to over 90% in the presence of low concentrations of chitosan (125 to 250 μg/ml). Adhesion occurred by adsorption of chitosan directly to the cell surface, since E. coli cells preincubated in the presence of the polymer were highly adherent, whereas hexadecane droplets pretreated with chitosan were subsequently unable to bind untreated cells. Inorganic cations (Na+, Mg2+) inhibited the chitosan-mediated adhesion of E. coli to hexadecane, presumably by interfering with the electrostatic interactions responsible for adsorption of the polymer to the bacterial surface. Chitosan similarly promoted E. coli adhesion to polystyrene at concentrations slightly higher than those which mediated adhesion to hexadecane. Poly-L-lysine also promoted microbial adhesion to hexadecane, although at concentrations somewhat higher than those observed for chitosan. In order to study the effect of the cationic protein lysozyme, adhesion was studied at 0°C (to prevent enzymatic activity), using n-octane as the test hydrocarbon. Adhesion of E. coli increased by 70% in the presence of 80 μg of lysozyme per ml. When the negatively charged carboxylate residues on the E. coli cell surface were substituted for positively charged ammonium groups, the resulting cells became highly hydrophobic, even in the absence of polycations. The observed 'hydrophobicity' of the microbial cells in the presence of polycations is thus probably due to a loss of surface electronegativity. The data suggest that enhancement of hydrophobicity by polycationic polymers is a general phenomenon.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5650-5654
Number of pages5
JournalJournal of Bacteriology
Issue number10
StatePublished - 1990


Dive into the research topics of 'Mechanism of enhancement of microbial cell hydrophobicity by cationic polymers'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this