Manu N. Capoor, Christof Birkenmaier, Jeffrey C. Wang, Andrew McDowell, Fahad S. Ahmed, Holger Brüggemann, Erin Coscia, David G. Davies, Soren Ohrt-Nissen, Assaf Raz, Filip Ruzicka, Jonathan E. Schmitz, Vincent A. Fischetti, Ondrej Slaby

December 2019, Volume 28, Issue 12, pp 2951 - 2971 Review Article Read Full Article 10.1007/s00586-019-06086-y

First Online: 29 July 2019

A review of microscopy-based evidence for the association of  biofilms in degenerative disc disease and other diseased human tissue


Recent research shows an increasing recognition that organisms not traditionally considered infectious in nature contribute to disease processes. Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) is a gram-positive, aerotolerant anaerobe prevalent in the sebaceous gland-rich areas of the human skin. A ubiquitous slow-growing organism with the capacity to form biofilm, P. acnes, recognized for its role in acne vulgaris and medical device-related infections, is now also linked to a number of other human diseases. While bacterial culture and molecular techniques are used to investigate the involvement of P. acnes in such diseases, definitive demonstration of P. acnes infection requires a technique (or techniques) sensitive to the presence of biofilms and insensitive to the presence of potential contamination. Fortunately, there are imaging techniques meeting these criteria, in particular, fluorescence in situ hybridization and immunofluorescence coupled with confocal laser scanning microscopy, as well as immunohistochemistry.


Our literature review considers a range of microscopy-based studies that provides definitive evidence of P. acnes colonization within tissue from a number of human diseases (acne vulgaris, degenerative disc and prostate disease and atherosclerosis), some of which are currently not considered to have an infectious etiology.


We conclude that P. acnes is an opportunistic pathogen with a likely underestimated role in the development of various human diseases associated with significant morbidity and, in some cases, mortality. As such, these findings offer the potential for new studies aimed at understanding the pathological mechanisms driving the observed disease associations, as well as novel diagnostic strategies and treatment strategies, particularly for degenerative disc disease.

Graphic abstract

These slides can be retrieved under Electronic Supplementary Material.[Figure not available: see fulltext.]

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