Innovations in Biotechnology and Medical Sciences

Bacteriophages: The Good Viruses that fight Bacteria


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Viromes, bacteriophages

Mains level: NA


Central Idea

  • Viruses have had a significant impact on human history, causing deadly outbreaks of diseases.
  • However, not all viruses are harmful, and scientists are discovering the importance of the virome (bacteriophages).

Do you know?

Viromes and bacteriophages are closely related because bacteriophages, or phages for short, are a type of virus that specifically infects bacteria.

Bacteriophages are considered part of the virome, as they contribute to the overall viral genetic material present in a given environment or organism.


What are Virome?

  • What is it: They are the collection of viruses in our bodies contributing to our health, similar to the bacterial microbiome.
  • Bacteriophages: The majority of viruses inside us are bacteriophages, which kill bacteria in our microbiomes without affecting human cells.
  • Vast in Numbers: Our bodies host around 380 trillion virus particles, 10x more than the number of bacteria.
  • Beneficial Viruses: Some viruses play beneficial roles, such as killing cancer cells, aiding immune system training, fighting pathogens, and regulating gene expression during pregnancy.

Bacteriophages and Phage Therapy

  • Bacteriophages’ Mechanism: Bacteriophages hunt down bacteria, attach to their surface, inject viral DNA, and replicate inside the bacteria before causing the bacterial cell to burst and release new viral particles.
  • Historical Background: In the early 20th century, scientists explored phages as potential treatments for bacterial infections, but antibiotic development overshadowed this research.
  • Antibiotic Resistance: With the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, scientists are revisiting phage therapy as an alternative to combat bacterial infections.
  • Advantages of Phages: Phages effectively target multi-resistant pathogens, are precise in eliminating bacterial strains, and do not disrupt the gut microbiome like antibiotics do.

Phage Therapy in Practice

  • Historical Use: Phage therapy persisted in countries like Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia, where antibiotics were scarce. These regions have witnessed successful treatment outcomes against antibiotic-resistant infections.
  • Expanding Use: Phage therapy is gaining attention in countries like Belgium, the US, and Germany, with specialized therapy centres and calls for increased exploration and utilization.
  • Challenges and Safety: Standardization of therapy and tailoring phages to specific bacteria causing the infection remain challenges. However, phage therapies have a good safety record, and human bodies can tolerate them well.

Future Prospects

  • Complementary Approach: Phages are unlikely to replace antibiotics but could be used in combination to enhance antibiotic effectiveness, particularly against resistant bacterial strains.
  • Research and Clinical Projects: Further large-scale research and clinical projects are recommended to establish effective phage therapies for different types of infections.

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