Natural roles of biosurfactants

Research output: Contribution to journalShort surveypeer-review


Microorganisms produce a variety of surface-active agents (or surfactants). These can be divided into low-molecular-weight molecules that lower surface and interfacial tensions efficiently and high-molecular-weight polymers that bind tightly to surfaces. These surfactants, produced by a wide variety of microorganisms, have very different chemical structures and surface properties. It is therefore reasonable to assume that different groups of biosurfactants have different natural roles in the growth of the producing microorganisms. Moreover, as their chemical structures and surface properties are so different, each emulsifier probably provides advantages in a particular ecological niche. Several bioemulsifiers have antibacterial or antifungal activities. Other bioemulsifiers enhance the growth of bacteria on hydrophobic water-insoluble substrates by increasing their bioavailability, presumably by increasing their surface area, desorbing them from surfaces and increasing their apparent solubility. Bioemulsifiers also play an important role in regulating the attachment-detachment of microorganisms to and from surfaces. In addition, emulsifiers are involved in bacterial pathogenesis, quorum sensing and biofilm formation. Recent experiments indicate that a high-molecular-weight bioemulsifier that coats the bacterial surface can be transferred horizontally to other bacteria, thereby changing their surface properties and interactions with the environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)229-236
Number of pages8
JournalEnvironmental Microbiology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2001


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