The Role of Biofilms, Bacterial Phenotypes, and Innate Immune Response in Mycobacterium avium Colonization to Infection

Catherine Weathered, Kelly Pennington, Patricio Escalante, Elsje Pienaar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC), is known for colonizing and infecting humans following inhalation of the bacteria. MAC pulmonary disease is notoriously difficult to treat and prone to recurrence. Both the incidence and prevalence MAC pulmonary disease have been increasing globally. MAC is well known to form biofilms in the environment. In vitro, these biofilms have been shown to aid MAC in epithelial cell invasion, protect MAC from phagocytosis, and cause premature apoptosis in macrophages. In vivo, the system of interactions between MAC, biofilms and host macrophages is complex, difficult to replicate in vitro and in animal models, has not been fully characterized. Here we present a three-dimensional agent-based model of a lung airway to help understand how these interactions evolve in the first 14 days post-bacterial inhalation. We parameterized the model using published data and performed uncertainty analysis to characterize outcomes and parameters’ effects on those outcomes. Model results show diverse outcomes, including wide ranges of macrophage recruitment levels, and bacterial loads and phenotype distribution. Though most bacteria are phagocytosed by macrophages and remain intracellular, there are also many simulations in which extracellular bacteria continue to drive the colonization and infection. Initial parameters dictating host immune levels, bacterial loads introduced to the airway, and biofilm conditions have significant and lasting impacts on the course of these results. Additionally, though macrophage recruitment is key for suppressing bacterial loads, there is evidence of significant excess recruitment that fail to impact bacterial numbers. These results highlight a need and identify a path for further exploration into the inhalation events in MAC infection. Early infection dynamics could have lasting impacts on the development of nodular bronchiectatic or fibrocavitary disease as well as inform possible preventative and treatment intervention targeting biofilm-macrophage interactions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number110949
JournalJournal of Theoretical Biology
StatePublished - Feb 7 2022


  • Agent-based model
  • Airway colonization
  • Biofilms
  • Nontuberculous mycobacteria

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistics and Probability
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Applied Mathematics


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