How Bacteria and Viruses Swap Genes and Evolve Together

Jenn Hoskins
5th May, 2024

How Bacteria and Viruses Swap Genes and Evolve Together

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Key Findings

  • Researchers found that viruses infecting bacteria (phages) can swap genes with their hosts, impacting bacterial evolution
  • This gene exchange can occur between phages and various bacteria, including those causing human diseases
  • Understanding these genetic exchanges is crucial for the safe use of phages in medicine, food safety, and environmental applications
In recent years, the scientific community has become increasingly aware of the intricate relationships between bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria—and their bacterial hosts. Bacteriophages, or phages for short, play a pivotal role in shaping bacterial populations, influencing their evolution, and by extension, impacting human health[2]. A new study conducted by researchers at the G. Natadze Scientific-Research Institute[1] sheds light on a particular aspect of this relationship: lateral genetic transfer (LGT), a process where genetic material is passed from one organism to another non-offspring organism. LGT is not a new concept; it is known to be a major force in bacterial evolution, allowing for the rapid acquisition of beneficial genes from other bacteria or from phages. However, the specifics of LGT involving phages, especially those with potential industrial applications, remain less understood. The study by the G. Natadze Scientific-Research Institute takes a significant step in unveiling the patterns and implications of LGT between phages and their bacterial hosts. The study's focus on phages of potential industrial importance is particularly relevant. Phages are being explored as alternatives to antibiotics in treating bacterial infections, in food safety to control bacterial pathogens, and in environmental applications to influence microbial communities. Understanding LGT in this context is crucial for ensuring the safety and efficacy of these applications. The research team used in silico methods, which involve computer simulations and data analysis, to detect instances of LGT between phages and their hosts. This approach allows for the examination of genetic sequences on a large scale, offering insights into how phages may exchange genetic material with the bacteria they infect. Their findings are built on the knowledge that phages can have different relationships with their bacterial hosts. Some phages are lytic, meaning they infect bacteria and quickly replicate, ultimately killing the host cell to release new phage particles. Others can be temperate, integrating their genetic material into the bacterial genome and entering a dormant state known as lysogeny[3]. During this state, the phage, now referred to as a prophage, is replicated along with the bacterial genome. The prophage can later be induced to leave the genome and enter a lytic cycle, a process that can be influenced by various factors, including stress on the host cell. The dynamics of lysogeny and lytic cycles are complex and can lead to LGT between phages and their hosts. For instance, when a prophage is excised from the bacterial genome, it may inadvertently carry with it fragments of bacterial DNA. If this phage goes on to infect another bacterium, it can introduce this DNA into the new host, contributing to genetic diversity and potentially affecting the host's characteristics. Recombination between phage populations is another mechanism by which LGT can occur[4]. The study from the G. Natadze Scientific-Research Institute adds to this understanding by identifying specific instances of LGT and the conditions under which they occur, which is vital for predicting and managing the outcomes of phage applications in various industries. The implications of this study are far-reaching. For one, by understanding the patterns of LGT, scientists can better predict and mitigate the risks associated with phage therapy, such as the unintentional spread of antibiotic resistance genes. Additionally, this knowledge can inform the development of more targeted and effective phage-based applications, as it reveals the potential for phages to influence bacterial traits. In conclusion, the research by the G. Natadze Scientific-Research Institute advances our understanding of LGT in phage-prophage interactions. It highlights the importance of considering genetic exchanges in the development of phage-based technologies and therapies. By building on previous studies[2][3][4], this work not only contributes to our scientific knowledge but also has practical implications for improving human and animal health, food safety, and environmental management.



Main Study

1) Genetic recombination-mediated evolutionary interactions between phages of potential industrial importance and prophages of their hosts within or across the domains of Escherichia, Listeria, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Staphylococcus

Published 4th May, 2024

Related Studies

2) The Human Gut Phage Community and Its Implications for Health and Disease.

3) Lysogeny in nature: mechanisms, impact and ecology of temperate phages.

4) Analysis of genetic recombination and the pan-genome of a highly recombinogenic bacteriophage species.

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