Can phages save us? Really? From what? First, what are phages anyway and how do their near-magical powers work? Ready for the good viruses?
By David Stone
Assorted Ideas, Large & Small
Their full title is a mouthful. It’s no wonder it morphs into “phages,” but the full name exposes the wonders. That tells us, in Greek — sorry — that these hardworking viruses devour harmful bacteria.
Phages are viruses, that is, incomplete organisms latching on to others to fulfill their missions. In this case, they attack bacteria and grow in number until the enemy blows up, sending out a storm of new bacteria killers.
How important are they?
As you may be aware, nature doesn’t create living stuff without any purpose. And evolution doesn’t sculpt anything just because. With those two facts in mind, consider this:
“It is estimated there are more than 1031 bacteriophages on the planet, more than every other organism on Earth, including bacteria, combined,” says Wikipedia.
Phages are found in the greatest number exactly where you’d expect — anywhere that bacteria thrives. That’s actually how they were found.
Ernest Hanbury Hankin discovered them after finding that something in the highly polluted Ganges River fought cholera. Cholera is a bacterial infection in the small intestine.
If phages can save us, how? And why haven’t I heard of them before?
Phages had competitors. Good ones. Antibiotics that also act against bacteria were developed and marketed. They got a head start because they were less complicated.
Research mainly in the Soviet Union, behind the Iron Curtain, hampered and confined bacteriophage awareness.
Work on phages continued in Georgia and elsewhere without getting attention. It’s lucky though that Soviet science persevered because, today, phage therapy may save us.
From what? The existential threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Drug-resistant strains of bacteria evolved after Big Pharma, in spite of warnings, over-prescribed antibiotics. Especially with cattle pumped to maturity fast for slaughter. And profit.
Word of caution…
Phages take over bacteria, using their systems to grow and reproduce. Almost always, the result is helpful, but in rare cases, it’s disastrous. Some flesh-eating bacteria get their power from merging with phages.
That’s far more rare than mainstream media wants you to think, but it’s not imaginary either.
Bacteriophages may save us with therapies designed to overcome antibiotic resistance. That’s a huge threat. Untreatable infections pose a risk of mass illnesses that kill millions.
That’s what happened in 1918 with the Spanish Flu. Between 50 and 100 million people died. No cure was ever found, and no one knows why the epidemic faded.
So, bacteriophage therapies are stirring research around the world. Long considered antibiotics’ lesser sibling, phage therapies may rescue us from their abuse.
Other research goes into using phages to control bacteria in food processing and countering bioweapons and toxins.
But the bigger news for you and me may be here and now…
Putting bacteriophages to work while you eat
As Science Daily reports, Common Foods can help ‘landscape’ the jungle of our gut microbiome. Lurking within that tongue-twisting title is some everyday truth.
Researchers at San Diego State University may have found a way to “harness food as medicine.”
Foods we eat commonly affect our gut microbiota. New research shows they do so by triggering the production of bacteriophage — viruses that infect and replicate inside bacteria. Compounds in these foods have an antimicrobial effect which causes the phage to replicate.San Diego State University Report
“This shows we could sculpt the human gut microbiome with common dietary compounds. The ability to kill specific bacteria, without affecting others, makes these compounds very interesting,” said Forest Rohwer, an SDSU microbial ecologist in the report.
What this means is that eating certain foods may end a lot of misery by killing off troublemaking gut bacteria. These bacteria are blamed for everything from inflammation to weight gain and cancer.
Eating phage-friendly foods may prevent all that or, at least, inhibit it.
And for the most part, we’re not talking exotic diets either.
Honey, hot sauce, aspartame, stevia oregano, cinnamon and clove strongly influence phage activity.
Can Phages Save Us? Conclusion
More research awaits, promising further discovery. But the idea that eating healthy may be more effective than medicines is exciting.
You don’t need a prescription for honey nor a doctor’s office visit to sprinkle oregano on your spaghetti sauce.
And for hot sauce fans like me, more please.