Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Scientists Study Tiny Disease Fighters 'Phages' Can Defeat Resistant Bacteria

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Scientists Study Tiny Disease Fighters 'Phages' Can Defeat Resistant Bacteria

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- Next time you suffer from strep throat or an intestinal infection, take a little consolation from this: The germs that are making you sick can be destroyed by even smaller germs of their own.

These tiny germ-slayers are a special type of virus called a "phage" that attacks only bacteria -- not people, animals or plants. Researchers are attempting to recruit phages (rhymes with "pages") to attack the alarming number of bacteria that can't be killed by antibiotics.

Unlike bacteria, which are tiny but complete one-celled organisms, a virus is a simple bundle of nucleic acid (the material that makes up DNA) that cannot live on its own. To survive, it must prey on a living cell.

An estimated 90,000 Americans died last year of hospital-acquired infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as "staph" (Staphylococcus aureus).

"Bacteria resistant to most or all available antibiotics are causing increasingly serious problems, raising widespread fears of returning to an era of untreatable infections and epidemics," said Elizabeth Kutter, a longtime phage researcher at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "It is clearly time to look more carefully at the potential of phage therapy."

Although most people have never heard of them, these miniature parasites are among the most numerous organisms on Earth, according to Stephen Abedon, a microbiologist at Ohio State University in Mansfield. A single drop of water can contain as many as 30 million phages.

To a bacterium -- 40 to 500 times its size -- a phage looks no bigger than a mosquito on your cheek. But there are so many of them that it would take a 10 with 30 zeroes after it to write the world's phage population, says a guide for biology teachers published by the American Society for Microbiology.

"If you were to gather them all up and weigh them, they would outweigh the world population of elephants by a thousand-fold or more," the guide says.

Formally known as bacteriophages (literally, "bacteria-eaters"), they come in many shapes and sizes. "Each kind of bacteria has its own phages," Kutter said.

One common variety resembles a lunar lander -- a miniature spaceship with a chamber packed with DNA, spidery legs and a sharp tail that penetrates the wall of a bacterial cell like a syringe. …

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