On the 16th December, last year I attended a seminar by Dr Darren Smith from Northumbria University discussing the importance of bacteriophages.
As a starting point, phages are a form of viruses that specifically infect bacteria. They do this by attacking the lysogenic pathway; phages integrate into the bacterial DNA, which allows the virus to replicate along with the infected cell.
To gain an idea of the scale of these bacteriophages and the bacteria they infect, there are well over 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (that’s 28 zeros) bacterium in the oceans alone. There are around 10³¹ individual phages with 10²³ new infections being initiated every second. For such tiny organisms and molecules, they have a huge impact with incredible and somewhat baffling numbers.
It is very important to think about these tiny parts of biology because they impact our lives. A key example of this is the effect of “Shiga toxin-producing” E. coli (STEC) which is a zoonotic pathogen leading to diarrhoea in humans. The toxin that causes this is carried by a phage and infects the normally harmless E. coli.
Other than causing negative effects to the body, there are many potentially worse effects from phages particularly in the world of medicine. In a series of laboratory tests, it was found that some bacteria infected with phages were able to survive in the presence of antibacterial chemicals. This is a real issue due to the increased level of resistance to antibacterial products which makes it much harder to destroy harmful bacteria and could cause large scale problems if these microorganisms, and the phages that potentially increase their survivability, infect hospitals or highly populated areas.
I have to say, I find this topic particularly interesting due to the field of microbiology being the main focus of my own 3rd year dissertation, although my project is focused solely on bacteria within the digestive system and does not take in to account any impact from viruses. I was not previously aware of the impact of phages, in fact I didn’t know they existed so I found learning about these viruses to be fascinating and would certainly consider a career that focuses on microbiology and the potentially research into the effects and uses of viral phages.