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We will be hearing more and more about bacteriophage therapy in the near future, as the deadliest of bacteria continue to mutate and gain resistance to our latest arsenal of antibiotics. We are rapidly losing this battle -- owing to our profligate overuse of "wonder drugs" -- and we can no longer keep pace with the sheer efficiency of bacterial evolutionary response to our strongest counterweapons.

A bacteriophage (phage or bacterial virus) is a virus that infects bacteria alone. They were discovered independently by Frederick W. Twort in Great Britain (1915) and Félix d'Hérelle in France (1917). D'Hérelle coined the term bacteriophage, meaning "bacteria eater".

Thousands of varieties of phage exist, each of which may infect only one type or a few types of bacteria. Like all viruses, phages are simple organisms that consist of a core of genetic material (nucleic acid) surrounded by a protein coat or capsid. Their nucleic acid may be either DNA or RNA and may be double-stranded or single-stranded. There are three basic structural forms of phage: an icosahedral (twenty-sided) head with a tail, an icosahedral head without a tail, and a filamentous form.

During infection a phage attaches to a bacterium and inserts its genetic material into the cell. The injected phage material takes over the machinery of the cells to make phage components. If of a lytic type, they then destroy the cell, releasing new phage particles. A second, more benign type called lysogenic phages incorporate their nucleic acid into the chromosome of the host cell and replicate with it as a unit without destroying the cell. However, under certain conditions lysogenic phages can be induced to follow a lytic cycle.

Undoubtedly, bacteria and bacteriophages evolved together for a billion years or more, each keeping up with the other in their battle for survival. Show me one creature in God’s universe that doesn’t have a nemesis out there who wants to kill him -- either for food, or as a nice warm host body in which to inject and nourish his progeny.  But, as Nietzsche said, whatever doesn't kill you, makes you stronger...

Phages have played an important role in laboratory research in the 20th century. The first phages studied were used as model systems for the study of virus multiplication. Alfred Day Hershey and Martha Chase used a bacteriophage in a famous experiment in 1952 which supported the theory that DNA is the genetic material. Certain other phages are used in recombinant DNA work. The particular phage X174 was the first organism to have its entire nucleotide sequence determined, by Frederick Sanger and his colleagues in 1977.

Soon after making their initial discovery, Twort and d'Hérelle began to research the use of phages in treating human bacterial diseases such as bubonic plague and cholera. As the biology and narrow specificity of phages was poorly understood at the time, that work was not very successful. After the discovery of "broad spectrum" antibiotics in the 1940s, phage therapy was virtually abandoned except in Eastern Europe and Russia, where d'Hérelle had traveled to continue his work and to establish new research centers.

Now, a half century after being cast aside, phages are getting a second look as a weapon against "superbugs" that have developed resistance to antibiotics. Bacteria such as staphylococcus, enterococcus, and streptococcus, once considered conquered, have remade themselves into prolific killers. Nearly 90,000 Americans died last year of hospital-acquired infections; many of these were caused by antibiotic-resistant strains. It’s a helluva note, when our hospitals turn out to be the riskiest, most unhealthy places to visit!

Be on the lookout for news of fresh bacteriophage research and results of new clinical trials. Phages may well save your life someday…

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Much of this material was paraphrased from http://www.britannica.com/nobel/micro/45_23.html and http://www.rense.com/health/phages.htm.

Image at top is a depiction of a T4 phage from http://www.mansfield.ohio-state.edu/~sabedon/.  No artist credited.


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