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The Gram negative anaerobe Fusobacterium nucleatum has been implicated in the aetiology of periodontal diseases. Although frequently isolated from healthy dental plaque, its numbers and proportion increase in plaque associated with disease. One of the significant physico-chemical changes in the diseased gingival sulcus is increased environmental pH. When grown under controlled conditions in our laboratory, F. nucleatum subspecies polymorphum formed mono-culture biofilms when cultured at pH 8.2. Biofilm formation is a survival strategy for bacteria, often associated with altered physiology and increased virulence. A proteomic approach was used to understand the phenotypic changes in F. nucleatum cells associated with alkaline induced biofilms. The proteomic based identification of significantly altered proteins was verified where possible using additional methods including quantitative real-time PCR (qRT-PCR), enzyme assay, acidic end-product analysis, intracellular polyglucose assay and Western blotting.
Of 421 proteins detected on two-dimensional electrophoresis gels, spot densities of 54 proteins varied significantly (p<0.05) in F. nucleatum cultured at pH 8.2 compared to growth at pH 7.4. Proteins that were differentially produced in biofilm cells were associated with the functional classes; metabolic enzymes, transport, stress response and hypothetical proteins. Our results suggest that biofilm cells were more metabolically efficient than planktonic cells as changes to amino acid and glucose metabolism generated additional energy needed for survival in a sub-optimal environment. The intracellular concentration of stress response proteins including heat shock protein GroEL and recombinational protein RecA increased markedly in the alkaline environment. A significant finding was the increased abundance of an adhesin, Fusobacterial outer membrane protein A (FomA). This surface protein is known for its capacity to bind to a vast number of bacterial species and human epithelial cells and its increased abundance was associated with biofilm formation.
This investigation identified a number of proteins that were significantly altered by F. nucleatum in response to alkaline conditions similar to those reported in diseased periodontal pockets. The results provide insight into the adaptive mechanisms used by F. nucleatum biofilms in response to pH increase in the host environment.