OCT 25, 2021 4:07 AM PDT

Bacteria Easily Share Mobile Genetic Elements That Confer Resistance to Phages

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Microbes are engaged in a never-ending battle, and they have ways of attacking each other as well as defense mechanisms. Viruses that infect bacteria are called bacteriophages, and it's generally thought that they can drive the evolution of bacteria. But scientists still have a lot to learn about how that happens. Bacteriophages (phages) have a lot of potential for use in the clinic, since these bacteria-infecting viruses can eliminate antibiotic-resistant infections. But if they're going to be used to their full potential, we have to know more about them.

Image credit: Pixnio

Researchers have now investigated how bacteriophages can influence the evolution of Vibrio bacteria, marine microbes that carry a lot of diverse features in their genome that can easily move around. Mobile genetic elements are not unusual in bacterial cells, which can often easily share genes with one another. A microbe might carry its own genome as well as other pieces of DNA that can move from one cell to another.

In this study, which was reported in Science, investigators determined that there are mobile genetic elements that function to defend bacteria against bacteriophages. These genetic elements can be swapped easily among microbes, so a colony of bacterial cells can easily share resistance to a virus they may be exposed to. Other mobile genetic elements are known to carry genes that, when expressed, enable a microbe to resist the effect of an antibiotic. This work may have important implications for the use of bacteriophages as antibiotics; researchers and clinicians will have to learn how bacterial infections might respond to phages.

"Each bacterial cell has a set of defense genes that enable it to eliminate certain viruses," explained senior study author Martin Polz from the Center for Microbiology and Environmental Systems Science (CMESS) at the University of Vienna. "Our study shows that these defense genes are exchanged very quickly between bacterial cells. This is possible because they are integrated into so-called mobile genetic elements that themselves control whether and when they transfer from one cell to another."

In this work, the researchers took samples of water from the coast of New England every day, and used genetic tools to assess the relationship between Vibrio bacteria and viruses. The bacteria were found to evolve quickly during this time; in 93 days, the bacteria gained significant resistance to phages in their environment within a few generations by sharing mobile genetic elements.

"This translates to bacteria being able to develop resistance to certain viruses within a few weeks to months in the wild," Polz suggested.

The researchers cautioned that the study highlights challenges posed by phage therapies. "The rapid acquisition of resistance must be taken into account in developing phage therapies, precisely because mobile gene elements similar to those we studied are also responsible for the rapid development of antibiotic resistance," Polz added.

Sources: University of Vienna, Science

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
NOV 02, 2021
Microbiology
Syphilis is on the Rise, and Infants are Paying a High Price
NOV 02, 2021
Syphilis is on the Rise, and Infants are Paying a High Price
Syphilis is on the rise worldwide, and it's killing infants. The disease is a leading cause of stillbirth worldwide, acc ...
NOV 11, 2021
Microbiology
Is Coronavirus Spillover More Common Than We Knew?
NOV 11, 2021
Is Coronavirus Spillover More Common Than We Knew?
While many people are most familiar with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, which is called SARS-CoV-2, there are man ...
NOV 22, 2021
Microbiology
Researchers Solve the Structure of the HIV Capsid, May Be a New Drug Target
NOV 22, 2021
Researchers Solve the Structure of the HIV Capsid, May Be a New Drug Target
Though treatments are available, there is no cure or vaccine from HIV, which impacts about 38 million people worldwide. ...
NOV 29, 2021
Microbiology
How the Hepatitis B Virus Promotes Liver Cancer Development
NOV 29, 2021
How the Hepatitis B Virus Promotes Liver Cancer Development
It's estimated that about 240 million people worldwide have an HBV infection. Hepatitis B infections are linked to t ...
DEC 27, 2021
Technology
Synthetic Coating Protects Bacteria Being Used for Therapeutic Benefit
DEC 27, 2021
Synthetic Coating Protects Bacteria Being Used for Therapeutic Benefit
In recent years, the gut microbiome has been identified as a major player in determining an individual’s health. A ...
JAN 05, 2022
Genetics & Genomics
Long Before Antibacterial Drugs, MRSA Superbug Arose in Hedgehogs
JAN 05, 2022
Long Before Antibacterial Drugs, MRSA Superbug Arose in Hedgehogs
Researchers were assessing the presence of bacteria in wild hedgehogs which are found in Europe and New Zealand, and fou ...
Loading Comments...