...The researchers further show that in both the gut of the earthworm and the stark confines of a Petri dish, viruses can alter the lifestyle of B. anthracis in two principal ways. One is associated with the ability to build communities, the state in which bacteria prefer to live in the environment; the other affects the bacterium's ability to produce spores: round, dormant cells with a thick cell wall that enables them to endure harsh environmental conditions that the rod-shaped bacteria cannot. What's more, they found that depending on the conditions of the environment, the virus's DNA manipulates the bacterium's genome to toggle between spore production and community building.
The relationship appears to result from some sort of evolutionary contract that keeps the interests of bacterium and virus in balance. Since viruses cannot infect and grow in spores, they have an interest in silencing genes that ramp up spore production and in activating genes that help build B. anthracis communities. But when soil conditions threaten the survival of anthrax-causing bacteria, spawning a tougher line of defense to weather the soil's extreme conditions benefits both parties. The unveiling of the bacterium's life cycle opens up completely new strategies to combat anthrax infection, says Fischetti.
This isn't the first time that Fischetti and Schuch have seen that bacteriophages can affect the survival of B. anthracis. In 2006 they showed that infected anthrax-causing bacteria become more resistant to a natural antibiotic found in the soil. The new studies now go further, showing how these survival capabilities are not just affected by bacteriophages but actually depend on them.
Bacteriophages, the researchers found, exert their control via molecules known as sigma factors, which delegate proteins to turn specific host genes on or off. Different viruses encode different sigma factors, so the appearance of different traits depends on which virus infects the bacterium. While the DNA of some bacteriophages gets incorporated into the bacterium's single chromosome, the DNA of others exists as separate circular entities called episomes. These episomes can either stay inside one bacterium or flit in and out, infecting several bacteria in a matter of hours.
The finding has implications for the sequencing of genomes. "What that means is that sequencing the genome may not be enough," says Fischetti. "There are more than 1,000 known isolates of anthrax and there is little genetic variation between one isolate and the next. So at face value, it is a really boring genome. But what we see here is that the phage DNA, which works together with the anthrax genome, has always been overlooked."
If bacteriophages can govern the fate of bacteria and bacteria affect human health, the transformation of these bacteria may be able to explain the recurrent and cyclical nature of certain diseases. Humans have 10 times more bacteria on them or in them than the number of human cells, explains Fischetti. And there are 10 times more bacteriophages than there are bacteria. "Bacteriophages play a major role in us and what goes on around us in nature," he says. "I am convinced of that."
"We determined that being magnetic actually makes the bacteria much more sensitive to oxygen when in a magnetic field, so that they swim away from oxygen at much lower concentrations,"
"Knowledge of the way bacteria live in the environment, in microbial communities, is still in its infancy," Wall said. "We just don't know a lot about the communication systems among microbes."
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