One of the biggest and ongoing health challenges of our time — and I’m not talking about COVID-19 — is the antibiotic resistance crisis. This crisis is caused by the increasing ability of infectious bacteria to survive multiple antibiotic treatments. In addition, within the past few decades, very few new antibiotics have been developed, leaving us with a smaller and smaller arsenal to use against dangerous bacteria. Eventually, if this crisis continues, we could be left without antibiotics to fight bacterial diseases that were once easily treated. To help address this problem, Laith Harb at Texas A&M University led a study to understand how certain viruses known as phages infect bacteria.

Antibiotic resistance is so challenging because bacteria can share the DNA that creates resistance with other bacteria. The three ways that bacteria can spread this antibiotic resistance are through sharing DNA via F-pili, which are hair-like structures on the outside of the bacterial cell; receiving DNA from viruses that have picked it up from resistant bacteria; and gaining DNA found in the environment from dead resistant bacteria. This recent study investigated how the MS2 phage infects a bacterial species known as Escherichia coli, because this phage binds to and targets the F-pili used in the first mechanism of antibiotic resistance spread. The researchers found that when the MS2 phage infects an E. coli cell, the phage causes two events. First, the F-pili that is bound to the MS2 phage falls off. Second, the MS2 phage prevents the E. coli cell from producing more F-pili. This implies that as a side effect of infection, the virus decreases the ability of E. coli to transfer its antibiotic resistance DNA through its F-pili.

While this recent study mainly observed the specific interaction between MS2 phages and E. coli cells, this knowledge can be used to develop a more general type of phage therapy that can bind to F-pili and potentially slow the spread of antibiotic resistance between different bacteria. Although F-pili is not the only way antibiotic resistance arises, we can use this method in combination with other treatments to potentially slow the antibiotic resistance crisis. 

Laith Harb is a graduate student at Texas A&M University in Professor Lanying Zeng’s lab and is interested in studying how to use phages as tools. Lanying Zeng is in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Texas A&M and is interested in studying cellular decision-making processes and cellular dynamics.  

Managing Correspondent: Jenny Zheng

Press Release:

Original Article: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Image Credits: Pixabay

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