Phage Tails as Polymeric Substance Probes: Arguments For and Against

Stephen T. Abedon

Department of Microbiology – The Ohio State University – –


Recently I suggested that:

Phage tails, to the extent that they display smaller diameters than phage virions as a whole, might contribute to nonenzymatic virion translocation into EPS [Extracellular Polymeric Substance, i.e. as associated with biofilm matrix], perhaps with longer, narrower tails permitting deeper or faster local penetration to biofilm-surface located bacteria.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, I now find that this was not an entirely original thought. From Wilkinson (1958), p. 68:

Physical blocking of the surface receptor. Can the presence of a capsule protect the cell simply because of its physical properties? Presumably an infective phage must be able to inject its DNA through the cytoplasmic membrane and, therefore, the main body of the phage must be at a distance from the cytoplasmic membrane smaller than the length of the phage tail (rarely longer than 150 mµ [meaning 150 nm]). Therefore, any layer outside the cytoplasmic membrane which is greater in thickness than 150 mµ and is impermeable to phages will act as a nonspecific phage inhibitor. It has already been shown that a capsule is by definition greater than 150 mµ in thickness and that
it is probably impermeable to particles of the size of a phage head (about 100 mµ). An additional barrier to the phage might be the high negative charge of the polysaccharide capsular surface. In confirmation of this role, capsulate bacteria have been reported to be generally phage resistant…

In my defense, my suggestion pointed specifically to longer phage tails, and the general thrust of my article was that it is especially less mature aspects of biofilms which may be more vulnerable to phages. Less maturity, in other words, might be associated with less thick biofilm matrix, e.g., as perhaps associated with new growth on biofilm surfaces.

Indeed, Wilkinson discusses further an article, unfortunately which is not in English, suggesting that when polymeric substance material is thinner then successful phage adsorption may be more likely (as continuing directly from the previous quote):

Thus, Kauffmann and Vahlne (82) found that most capsulate strains of E. coli were resistant to phage and that when capsulate strains were attacked, there was a proportionality between the thickness of the capsule and the resistance.

One could speculate therefore that it could be, conversely, that shorter tails would be less able to penetrate thicker “capsulate”.

It should be noted that I am making no claims that phage tails exist solely for the sake of penetrating extracellular polymers towards adsorption of bacteria, though it is entirely possible that such penetration could serve as a benefit of possessing especially “longer, narrower tails”.