Researchers at the Jagiellonian University’s Malopolska Biotechnology Centre have made a groundbreaking discovery. It concerns viruses that infect bacterial cells, known as bacteriophages.
The study may help in the treatment of infectious diseases and in the fight against drug resistance, which is becoming a growing problem and one of the most serious medical challenges. The research by Dr Rafal Mostowy’s team has been published in “Nature Communications”
New research has led to surprising conclusions: bacteriophages are incredibly malleable when it comes to genetics. Each living organism contains genetic material (genome) comprised of many genes. Genes encode information about various characteristics, such as skin or eye colour in people.
The scientists used latest tools in the area of bioinformatics to precisely compare hundreds of thousands of bacteriophage genes. After analysing the data, they saw something surprising: many different genes shared the same fragments.
‘Our research revealed that bacteriophage genes are frequently composed on separate fragments, capable of undergoing independent evolutionary processes and forming diverse combinations. This situation can also be compared to a card game, in which instead of a standard set of 52 cards we have at our disposal their fragments that can be shuffled into hundreds of unique combinations, creating completely new types of cards. This results in some genes having a much higher genetic “plasticity” and therefore being able to keep up with rapidly evolving bacteria’, added Dr hab. Rafał Mostowy.
According to research, the most malleable bacteriophage genes are the ones that encode special proteins whose purpose is to fight bacteria. These proteins are key for the development of new methods of treatment using bacteriophages to fight bacterial infections. Phage tails, specialised nano-machines capable of recognising particular bacterial strains, or endolysins, which destroy some bacterial cells by destroying a certain type of cell walls, are examples of these proteins. These discoveries offer new possibilities in designing new antibacterial methods of treatment that target harmful bacteria and protect the beneficial ones.
The results of the study also put our understanding of evolution in a new light. ‘Up until now, it was believed that genes are the fundamental units of heredity and the evolutionary process. Our research adds another layer of complexity in this area, showing that sometimes not genes, but even just their fragments can be perceived as the most basic evolutionary units’, said Dr Bogna Smug from the JU Małopolska Centre of Biotechnology, the first author of the publication.
The study could also be used in the development of new antibacterial methods of treatment. ‘Bacteriophages are very choosy and only infect certain strains of bacteria. Therefore, finding a right match is a tremendous challenge when it comes to designing treatments against drug resistant bacteria. Our research could be a watershed moment for this task. It’s like comparing ancient furniture with modern modular items that can be bought in stores today. In case of the latter, we can change their functions and purpose in the blink of an eye, while obsolete or damaged modules can be easily replaced. In the same way, antibacterial treatments could be based on rearranging gene fragments to fight a specific drug resistant strain’, added Dr Smug.
The project was funded by the Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange, National Science Centre and European Molecular Biology Organisation.
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