Interdisciplinary life of microbes: from single cells to multicellular aggregates

Workshop Report

This meeting was devoted to the topic of bacterial biofilms, which, from a biological perspective, can be naively described as “just” a community of bacteria encapsulated in a polymeric matrix that form on surfaces. The complexity and heterogeneity of cell phenotypes and their interactions make biofilms versatile and robust in response to environmental stresses and render biofilms untreatable in cases where they colonize medical devices, where they can be almost unremovable. Understanding this phenotypic and structural complexity is only possible by a coordinated interdisciplinary approach, facilitation of which was the goal of our meeting.

Central to achieving this goal was to attract the world-leading experts in biofilm research, but also from neighboring disciplines, as broad as medicine, chemistry, theoretical and experimental biophysics, and microbiology. More than 70% from the first preliminary list of speakers did come to Dresden to report on their latest results and participate in extensive discussions. The colloquium given by Roberto Kolter (Harvard Medical School) provided an impulse of novel ideas that echoed across many key presentations during the workshop: hypothesis for biofilms as a part of human oral tissue (M. Hannig), role of antimicrobial peptides in disease (C. Bogdan, G. Wong), mechanical forces and their sensing (V. Gordon, N. Biais), regulation of bacterial metabolism (R. Hengge) and bacteria/yeast interactions in caries (K. Drescher), just to name a few. Seven presentation slots were allocated to contributed talks, which were supplemented by the two well-attended poster sessions. On the first day the poster jury selected the best posters and on the second day, the poster presenters themselves voted for the best poster(s).

The Covid-19 pandemic delayed our in-person meeting. However, this gave us a chance to hold a virtual get-together event a year before, which was organized in a brainstorming format and encouraged people to register to the physical meeting. The virtual meeting inspired six emergent topics that we formulated to one-hour discussion groups during the workshop to specifically address those issues. These discussion sessions were ignited by panels of invited speakers and actively attended by all participants, and actively involved the junior attendees. These sessions became the key-point for the synergetic mix of interdisciplinary opinions to unleash itself in an informal discussion and transported this spirit to the talks, where the speakers frequently made links to the topics discussed in the respective discussion groups. Importantly those sessions helped “experienced” newcomers (from other fields) to integrate, as well as “junior” newcomers to feel the general vibe of the topic and get involved and contributing ideas.

Overall, the atmosphere of the meeting was a non-stop dynamic and multimodal discussion, which we believe will lead to a number of concrete scientific results and cross-continental collaborations between experienced scientists and students arriving from the USA, Europe, Israel, and India. Dedicated to the topic of our meeting, there will be a special issue of the Journal of Bacteriology to which all the speakers and poster presenters were invited to contribute. That also provides an option for the scientific organizers to provide a perspective view based on the conference discussions. Several emerging collaborations between participants were apparent from the interactions. Furthermore, the recently started DFG Priority Program “Emergent Functions of Bacterial Multicellularity” (speaker T. Mascher) was introduced to the international community and should further increase the interdisciplinary and coordinated activities on biofilm form of microbial existence. Undoubtedly, this event is just the first one in the series of the workshops to follow in the future.