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Chlorhexidine is a widely used, commercially available cationic antiseptic. Although its mechanism of action on planktonic bacteria has been well explored, far fewer studies have examined its interaction with an established biofilm. The physical effects of chlorhexidine on a biofilm are particularly unknown. Here, the authors report the first observations of chlorhexidine-induced elastic and adhesive changes to single cells within a biofilm. The elastic changes are consistent with the proposed mechanism of action of chlorhexidine. Atomic force microscopy and force spectroscopy techniques were used to determine spring constants and adhesion energy of the individual bacteria within an Escherichia coli biofilm. Medically relevant concentrations of chlorhexidine were tested, and cells exposed to 1% (w/v) and 0.1% more than doubled in stiffness, while those exposed to 0.01% showed no change in elasticity. Adhesion to the biofilm also increased with exposure to 1% chlorhexidine, but not for the lower concentrations tested. Given the prevalence of chlorhexidine in clinical and commercial applications, these results have important ramifications on biofilm removal techniques

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