Vital Nature: Bacteriophages

Bacteriophages have been utilized by humanity within agricultural, medical and dietary fields of experimentation and implementation for decades. After recent strikes of rebellion by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, they are reemerging in the main steam of modern medicine. They are making a potentially viable comeback as anti-viral or anti-bacterial tools.

The bacteriophages, informally called phages, are viruses that infect and multiply within bacteria. They are amongst the most common and diverse organisms on our planet. They flourish with biological genome compositions that encode as few as four genes, or hundreds of genes, and are subsequently microscopic. All contain nucleic acid and protein, and depending on the phage, the nucleic acid they contain can be either DNA or RNA. The attachment of a phage to a bacterium is simplified as a process by which the phage latches onto the bacterium, and depending on the circumstances this attachment may be reversible. The irreversible attachment by a phage to bacteria often depends on two physical components that some phages have: base plates and sheaths, but since there are such vast variation between phages this is not always the case.

Basically, those parts allow the ultimate infestation and obliteration of the bacteria they leech onto. The modified base makes it so that the phage’s nucleic acid does not wreak havoc on the phage while it injects its host, and the sheath is retracted by the phage and pushed through the bacterial envelope. Those commonalities said, phages are versatile little viruses, and are now being more and more recognized as potential allies to human medicine.

Phages were first recognized in 1915 by Fredrick Twort, and English bacteriologist and physician, but it was in 1917 that Felix d’Herelle, a self-educated French-Canadian bacteriologist coined the term “bacteriophage” to describe a “microbe” capable of attacking and killing bacteria, and recognized that this bacterial death as the result of a virus. Not all that many years later, phages began to treat bacterial diseases such as dysentery, and U.S. pharmaceutical attention was drawn to bacteriophage potential. However, around a decade after phages were discovered, antibiotics took the stage.

Up until much more modern times, phage usage in medicine has been on a much lower level. Outside of the direct medicinal field, phages have been used by modern people as methods of food preservation. Items such as processed cheese or sandwich meat could contain strategic strains of bacteriophage that would keep certain bacteria from infecting the product so as to prevent certain foodborne illness, delay spoilage, and extending shelf life.

The novelty of phages in food is ebbing as fresh foods and controversial “plastic” prove abundant over biological methods of preservation. But at nearly the same time, some of today’s scientists and doctors are prospecting the entente between medicine and phages, especially with cases of antibiotic resistant diseases on the rise. Diseases such as cholera are still being tested against phages, with positive results given by analysis of lab mice. Many doctors claim their natural commandeering of bacterial immune system bolster the possibility of their widespread usage.