A variety of strains of the genus Lactobacillus was investigated with respect to the structure, softness, and interactions of their outer surface layers in order to construct structure-property relations of the Gram-positive bacterial cell wall. The role of the conformational properties of the constituents of the outer cell-wall layers and their spatial distribution on the cell wall is emphasized. Atomic force microscopy was used to resolve the surface structure, interactions, and softness of the bacterial cell wall at nanometer-length scales and upwards. The pH-dependence of the electrophoretic mobility and a novel interfacial adhesion assay were used to analyze the average physicochemical properties of the bacterial strains. The bacterial surface is smooth when a compact layer of globular proteins constitutes the outer surface, e.g., the S-layer of L. crispatus DSM20584. In contrast, for two other S-layer containing strains (L. helveticus ATCC12046 and L. helveticus ATCC15009), the S-layer is covered by polymeric surface constituents which adopt a much more extended conformation and which confer a certain roughness to the surface. Consequently, the S-layer is important for the overall surface properties of L. crispatus, but not for the surface properties of L. helveticus. Both surface proteins (L. crispatus DSM20584) and (lipo)teichoic acids (L. johnsonii ATCC332) confer hydrophobic properties to the bacterial surface whereas polysaccharides (L. johnsonii DSM20533 and L. johnsonii ATCC 33200) render the bacterial surface hydrophilic. Using the interfacial adhesion assay, it was demonstrated that hydrophobic groups within the cell wall adsorb limited quantities of hydrophobic compounds. The present work demonstrates that the impressive variation in surface properties displayed by even a limited number of genetically-related bacterial strains can be understood in terms of established colloidal concepts, provided that sufficiently detailed structural, chemical, and conformational information on the surface constituents is available.
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