The epidemic has highlighted the threat that certain viruses appear to people. But viruses can also infect live-life bacteria and a team led by Johns Hopkins University has developed a test to determine if bacteria are sick, similar to the one used to test humans in COVID-19.
“If there had been a COVID-like epidemic that appeared in important bacterial populations, it would have been hard to know, because before this study we lacked the cost-effective and accurate tools needed to study viral infections in non-cultured bacterial populations,” said parallel author Sarah Freheim. , Johns Hopkins Professor of Environmental Health and Engineering.
The findings were published today in Nature Microbiology.
Diseased bacteria are intended to function as joints and as part of the establishment of the food chain in Chesapeake Bay and other waterways. Determining viral infections in bacteria has traditionally relied on cultivating both bacteria and viruses, which miss 99% of the bacteria in the environment because they cannot be grown in culture, says Freheim, adding that testing for viral infections in non-cultured bacteria is expensive and difficult to implement. Widely, not different from the early stages of COVID-19 testing.
The key to testing for viral infections for non-cultured bacteria was faster and more reasonably priced was to isolate individual bacterial cells in a small bubble (i.e. a drop of emulsion) and fuse the genes of the virus and bacteria together inside.
“Air-conditioned genes act like name tags for bacteria and viruses,” said lead author Eric Sakowski, a former postdoctoral researcher at Freheim’s Laboratory, who now serves as a professor at Mount St. Mary’s University. “By merging the genes together, we are able to identify which bacteria are infected, as well as the version of the virus that causes the infection.”
The resulting test provides a new way to test for viral infections in a subset of bacterial populations. The test allows researchers to identify an association between environmental conditions and infections in actinobacteria, one of the most common bacterial groups in Chesapeake Bay and those that play a crucial role in breaking down organic matter, and turning nutrients into plants and photosynthetic algae.
Although researchers have developed this tool for Chesapeake Bay research, they say their approach can be widely applied to all aquatic ecosystems, shedding light on viral ecology and helping to predict – and even prevent – devastating environmental impacts.
“This testing tool allows us to track viral infections more easily so we can monitor these infections to see when they may have important environmental consequences,” Freheim said.
Skowski said the new test could someday also affect the way we treat bacterial infections.
“Viruses show potential for treating infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” he said. “Knowing which viruses infect bacteria most effectively will be critical to this type of treatment.”
Freheim’s team also included John Hopkins’ doctoral student, Keith Arora-Williams, and Funing Tian, Ahmed A. Zaid, Olivier Zablotsky, and Matthew Sullivan, all from Ohio University.
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