National Biofilms Innovation Centre (NBIC)

Issue: HIV and AIDS

06 November 2018 article

Biofilms are communities of microbes that occupy surfaces or environmental niches and encase themselves in a polymeric matrix that protects them from chemical and physical insult. A recent survey estimated that up to 75% of microbes live in these collaborative communities and that microbes are more often multicellular communities rather than unicellular loners. 

Often polymicrobial, biofilms have an impact on every aspect of our everyday lives, from the water we drink to the food we eat, as well as the success or failure of medical interventions. They have impact on the oil and gas industry, waste-water treatment facilities, the crops we rely on, our shipping industries and the design of the urban environments many of us occupy. Their influence can be malevolent, benign or actively beneficial, but biofilms are everywhere.

The National Biofilms Innovation Centre (NBIC) is a new UK-wide centre set up to marry the best of fundamental academic research on microbial biofilms with the needs of end-users. Given the ubiquitous nature of biofilms, the challenge requires a multidisciplinary approach. At its heart, NBIC aims to bring the state-of-the-art in medical, biomedical, microbiological and systems approaches together with cutting edge physical sciences research across engineering, physics and maths. As a soft matter physicist who studies biological systems, I have been fascinated by the complex and beautiful architectures formed by these communities, and the complexity of the interactions that take place between these apparently simple organisms. It is intriguing that these communities show emergent behaviour: working together, microbes achieve remarkable things beyond the capacity of any single cell or any single species, and we are only now beginning to tease apart the complex web of collaborations, communications and competitions.

A core part of NBIC is to work closely across industry and with the healthcare sector to understand how best we, as academic researchers, can have an impact. We believe that academic researchers can be inspired by the challenges that end-users face. For example, the build-up of microbial and higher organisms on ship hulls has an enormous financial impact on the global shipping industry as it causes drag, meaning greater fuel costs to transport goods between ports. This apparently simple and even prosaic problem has complex and fundamental questions at its heart, which range from the physical (what properties of the surface promote attachment?) to the ecological (what impact does transporting these communities around the globe have on local environmental niches or on the spread of antimicrobial resistance?).

Our aim is not to drive or delimit the research taking place in academic laboratories, but to facilitate conversations that ensure useful findings are captured, and communicated appropriately and effectively to those who might benefit. We appreciate and celebrate the importance of blue skies research, while also recognising that our findings often have wider, and sometimes unforeseen, implications. NBIC also aims to open the academic research base up to industrial partners to enable collaborative and contract research, accelerating the delivery of technologies and interventions where appropriate.

NBIC is led by four Universities (Edinburgh, Liverpool, Southampton and Nottingham) with a wider partnership of 26 academic institutions across the UK. Together we are building a thriving community that aims to advance frontiers in biofilms research by working in partnership.

Cait MacPhee

National Biofilms Innovation Centre
[email protected]

NBIC is a BBSRC and Innovate UK-funded Innovation and Knowledge Centre co-directed by Jeremy Webb (Southampton), Rasmita Raval (Liverpool), Miguel Cámara (Nottingham) and Cait MacPhee (Edinburgh). The CEO of NBIC is Mark Richardson. 

Image: NBIC.