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Modern ecological niches are teeming with an astonishing diversity of microbial life in biofilms closely associated with mineral surfaces, which highlights the remarkable success of microorganisms in conquering the challenges and capitalizing on the benefits presented by the mineral-water interface. Biofilm formation capability likely evolved on early Earth because biofilms provide crucial cell survival functions. The potential toxicity of mineral surfaces toward cells and the complexities of the mineral-water-cell interface in determining the toxicity mechanisms, however, have not been fully appreciated. Here, we report a previously unrecognized role for extracellular polymeric substances (EPS), which form biofilms in shielding cells against the toxicity of mineral surfaces. Using colony plating and LIVE/DEAD staining methods in oxide suspensions versus oxide-free controls, we found greater viability of wild-type, EPS-producing strains of Pseudomonas aeruginosa PAO1 compared to their isogenic knockout mutant with defective biofilm-producing capacity. Oxide toxicity was specific to its surface charge and particle size. High resolution transmission electron microscopy (HRTEM) images and assays for highly reactive oxygen species (hROS) on mineral surfaces suggested that EPS shield via both physical and chemical mechanisms. Intriguingly, qualitative as well as quantitative measures of EPS production showed that toxic minerals induced EPS production in bacteria. By determining the specific toxicity mechanisms, we provide insight into the potential impact of mineral surfaces in promoting increased complexity of cell surfaces, including EPS and biofilm formation, on early Earth.

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Copyright 2012 Mary Ann Liebert. The original published version of this article may be found at