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Bacteriophage: Seeing The Nonliving Live
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Bacteriophage: Seeing the Nonliving Live

How is it possible to consider something that is nonliving and yet, observe its functions and generate a universal name in the world of Biology? Bacteriophage is a word that originated from the common term “bacteria” and the Greek term “phagein” meaning to devour. The general function of the common bacteriophage is to infect the bacteria by a simple injection of genetic material. Genetic material that the phage injects can be comparable to that of organisms, in ways that the material is composed of either DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) or RNA (Ribonucleic Acid) “short” chromosomes. This virus is referred as nonliving in the world of science for they rely on a living host to reproduce. The goal is to parasitize the living cell and use the molecular machinery of that host and later kill the bacteria.

The discovery of this virus is still in debate of who proclaimed the actual findings of bacteriophage. Most writers state that Felix d’Herelle was the universally acknowledged man who first observed the virus. Some believe this while others state that d’Herelle was dishonest in his independent discovery of bacteriophage. Having been rumored that d’Herelle was unaware of F.W. Twort’s discovery of the virus a year and a half before his publication of “On an Invisible Microbe Antagonistic to Dynsentery Bacteria” in 1917.

As appointed Superintendent of the Brown Institution, London University; Twort was now able to continue research in pathology or bacteriology. He decided to perform his experiments in the topic of growing viruses in artificial media. After many failed attempts to accomplish his goal, he noticed something else during his observations. He noticed the growth of a bacteria instead that appeared to be plagued by some disease that was yet to be determined. Twort concluded that the cause of this strange glassy appearance that the inoculated agar medium illustrated was and infectious agent that killed bacteria and within this process also reproduced itself into multiple copies. However, he never officially concluded that the possibility of this agent was a bacterial virus, resulting in the debate of the true discovery of bacteriophage. As for d’Harelle, he had a different story of discovering what we now know as bacteriophage.

It was in Mexico, where an invasion of locust was reported by the Indians. There he collected and studied the locusts and found out it was caused by a bacteria. He began to spread the illness to determine the factor of the formation of the “clear spots” that appeared on the agar. He discovered that an invisible microbe causing the clear spots to appear, meaning that it was a virus parasitic on bacteria itself. In his published works, d’Herelle does not mention Twort and his discovery of his observation of the agent that killed the bacteria. Thus, extending the debate of who proclaimed bacteriophage into the world of science and genetics.

The actual structure and functions of the virus are simple yet complex. Bacteriophage consists of the head containing the DNA or RNA “short” chromosomes that is surrounded by a protein called capsid enclosing the nucleic acid. The neck and collar connects the head to the core that is surrounded by a tail sheath enabling the virus to attach to the surface of the bacteria and inject the genetic material. Many viruses contain the end plate, also known as the base plate, allowing the tail fibers to attach the bacteriophage, creating the binding to the bacterium much more accessible to the bacteriophage. Once attached to bacteria, the phage injects the genetic material into the host and the information takes control of the machinery in the cell. Performed by the turning off the synthesis of bacterial components and reprogramming the synthetic machinery to produce phage components instead. The overwhelming production of the phage then breaks the cell wall open (process known as lysis) releasing the virus and performing the same function as the parent.

Even though bacteriophage seems like a mode of destruction, they also provide an important model system for scientist to work within the labs. The virus can be easily cultured in large numbers thanks to their small size. Used for epidemiological purposes and recently used for treatment of bacterial infections.


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