Smoking and the oral biofilm

Researchers from Ohio State investigate how smoking affects the oral biofilm

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  • Tobacco smoke inhibits the metabolism of beneficial bacteria and activates genes in pathogens
  • Smoke leads to a shift towards pathogen rich biofilms in vitro
  • Gene expression, protein expression and metabolism of commensals and pathogens were all affected by tobacco smoke


We have previously reported that oral biofilms in clinically healthy smokers are pathogen-rich, and that this enrichment occurs within 24 h of biofilm formation. The present investigation aimed to identify a mechanism by which smoking creates this altered community structure. By combining in vitro microbial–mucosal interface models of commensal (consisting of Streptococcus oralis, Streptococcus sanguis, Streptococcus mitis, Actinomyces naeslundii, Neisseria mucosa and Veillonella parvula) and pathogen-rich (comprising S.oralis, S.sanguis, S.mitis, A.naeslundii, N.mucosa and V.parvula, Fusobacterium nucleatum, Porphyromonas gingivalis, Filifactor alocis, Dialister pneumosintes, Selenonomas sputigena, Selenominas noxia, Catonella morbi, Parvimonas micra and Tannerella forsythia) communities with metatranscriptomics, targeted proteomics and fluorescent microscopy, we demonstrate that smoke exposure significantly downregulates essential metabolic functions within commensal biofilms, while significantly increasing expression of virulence genes, notably lipopolysaccharide (LPS), flagella and capsule synthesis. By contrast, in pathogen-rich biofilms several metabolic pathways were over-expressed in response to smoke exposure. Under smoke-rich conditions, epithelial cells mounted an early and amplified pro-inflammatory and oxidative stress response to these virulence-enhanced commensal biofilms, and a muted early response to pathogen-rich biofilms. Commensal biofilms also demonstrated early and widespread cell death. Similar results were observed when smoke-free epithelial cells were challenged with smoke-conditioned biofilms, but not vice versa. In conclusion, our data suggest that smoke-induced transcriptional shifts in commensal biofilms triggers a florid pro-inflammatory response, leading to early commensal death, which may preclude niche saturation by these beneficial organisms. The cytokine-rich, pro-oxidant, anaerobic environment sustains inflammophilic bacteria, and, in the absence of commensal antagonism, may promote the creation of pathogen-rich biofilms in smokers.


Samir A. Shah, Sukirth M. Ganesan, Saradhadevi Varadharaj, Shareef M. Dabdoub, John D. Walters & Purnima S. Kumar
npj Biofilms and Microbiomes 3, Article number: 26 (2017)

Ben Libberton

Science Communicator, Freelance

I'm a freelance science communicator, formerly a Postdoc in the biofilm field. I'm interested in how bacteria cause disease and look to technology to produce novel tools to study and ultimately prevent infection.