The Deadliest of all Beings: The Bacteriophage – Neel Bhattacharya 10H

Everyday, billions are killed worldwide by the world’s deadliest being: the Bacteriophage. It is a ‘phage’ which means virus, and is THE single most abundantly found being on Earth. The number of Bacteriophages present on this planet are much, much more than the number of all other organisms – including bacteria – combined. They are present all around us in our direct environment… In fact, there are millions in your house right now! But not to worry, while they do lead many to an early death, they only attack Bacteria.

How the bacteriophage works

Since the bacteriophage is a virus, it can not be completely considered an organism, the reason being that viruses are basically a bunch of genetic material enclosed within an outer covering and are incapable of carrying out any of an organism’s life processes without the help of a ‘host’ cell. Whilst other viruses look like spheres with spikes sticking out, or like worms, the bacteriophage looks man-made. Its genetic material is contained within an icosahedron which is a dice with 20 faces and 30 edges and it rests atop a long tail which has six fibers on the other end which act like its legs. Once it latches onto a bacterium, It injects it’s RNA into it through the opposite end of its tail (where the legs are) and takes over the entire cell’s life processes before forcing it to create more phages using its own nutrients. Once the cell is full of bacteriophages, it bursts, showering its surroundings with many more phages. What makes this virus the deadliest being on Earth is that once it successfully injects its genetic material into its victim, the bacterium has no chance of survival.

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So… what?

I know, just bear with me. This concerns all of us. For hundreds of years, we have been haunted and terrorized by Bacteria. Every minor injury could become life threatening. A simple cut or an infection could lead to a critical condition that hospitalizes the victim. Ever since the lab ‘accident‘ that led to the invention of antibiotics, we have had little to fear since we had discovered an easy way out and vastly reduced the number of severe bacterial infections. However, this could not and can not be our long term solution to this problem. Just like we become immune to a pathogen after exposure to it, Bacteria are becoming immune to antibiotics due to its frequent usage, giving rise to superbugs; bacteria immune to almost everything we can throw at them. This is where the bacteriophage comes in. We could use phages as an alternative to, or along with antibiotics to combat these deadly diseases, and they won’t affect our cells at all! We encounter millions of these everyday and remain unaffected. As always, with every new solution there are both pros and cons that accompany it.

Pro: They are much more powerful than antibiotics and target only harmful bacteria in our body, leaving the good bacteria intact.

Con: Each species of Bacteriophage has evolved to attack only a particular family of bacteria and finding the perfect phage is a long and tedious process.

Our long term solution

Bacteria cannot become immune to phages as easily, since phages evolve too. There has been an arms race among them for millions of years. Even if they had the ability to become immune, the evolution would require them to give up some of their immunity to antibiotics. Hence, we would require both Bacteriophages and Antibiotics to protect ourselves and future generations from having to endure hospital visits after every minor wound or injury. Phage therapy has been in use in Russia for quite a while now (from before the Soviet Union broke down), but it failed to gain popularity in the west since lab reports and articles were in Russian. Pharmaceutical companies are hesitant about investing in such practices since it is new ground for them. However, bacteriophages have no unwanted effects upon the human body. It is ironic that injecting the world’s deadliest being into our bodies could save millions of lives. The times when a minor cut could hospitalize you are coming back, and Bacteriophages, are our only hope of preventing that from ever happening again.