Virion Location of Most Phage Depolymerases

Stephen T. Abedon

Department of Microbiology – The Ohio State University – –


Here is a something worth knowing about, from Pires, D.P., H. Oliveira, L.D. Melo, S. Sillankorva, and J. Azeredo. 2016. Bacteriophage-encoded depolymerases: their diversity and biotechnological applications.  Appl. Microbiol. Biotechnol. 100:2141-2151. [PubMed], (calls to figure and table excluded from quote):

Based on our search, the huge majority of phage depolymerases (126 proteins) are encoded in the same open reading frame of phage structural proteins (mostly on tail fibers, base plates, but sometimes also in the neck) or in close proximity to those genes, and were thus considered as structural proteins. Twenty other depolymerases found in this work might be soluble proteins since they are distant from any structural gene.

Depolymerases that are only soluble, that is, not virion attached, presumably are only useful in the immediate vicinity of phage-lysed bacteria, e.g., towards phage burrowing more deeply into biofilms. This perhaps means that phages don’t need depolymerases to initially infect biofilm bacteria (see here for that argument). Depolymerases that are associated with virions, by contrast, presumably are useful as well upon initial phage encounter with a biofilm bacterium.

That the majority of depolymerases are may not be soluble, but instead appear to be associated with virions, is suggestive that depolymerases are employed for the sake of initial encounter between virions and biofilm bacteteria. But this then begs the question of why more phages don’t encoded depolymerases?

Is it that we have trouble recognizing them in sequence data? Is it that bacteria are just too diverse in terms of extracellular polymers produced? (In addition to limiting utility, the latter may also interfere with our ability to detect depolymerase phenotypes during phage growth as plaques.) Is it because for the most part phages can infect biofilm bacteria sufficiently even without depolymerases? Or are there unexplored trade-offs associated with depolymerase encoding, perhaps especially when they are present as structural components of phage virions?

In the three previous paragraphs I am drawing on a tiny bit of past thought as to the role of depolymerases in phage interaction with biofilms, as can be found in my 2011 book, Bacteriophages and Biofilms. In particular, from p. 23 (of the revised pagination version, or p. 27 of the original… don’t ask…):

Ecologically, EPS depolymerases improve phage movement that occurs either adjacent to or distant from a phage’s parental infection. If distant, then movement towards bacteria will be enhanced by physical linkage between virions and depolymerases. Alternatively, for more localized movement, then soluble depolymerases may suffice, such as for phage dissemination out of biofilms [2004]. Scholl et al. [2005] thus found that efficiency of plating (EOP) was low for phages encoding a soluble EPS depolymerase when infecting a K1 capsule-producing strain and that an isogenic phage not encoding the depolymerase is “unable to form plaques on lawns of this strain” (p. 4872). This result is suggestive that though initiation of plaques occurred with low efficiency, once those infections commenced then subsequent EPS depolymerization presumably facilitated phage migration towards adjacent bacteria to complete plaque formation. In circumstances where enzymes may not be directly supplied, it should thus be advantageous for those enzymes to be carried by virion particles, if only to increase the efficiency of initial infection. That is, it should be advantageous to phages for enzymes to be present at the point of phage adsorption, by being virion attached, rather than present only immediately following the lyses of phage-infected bacteria [I then illustrate this argument with a figure…].





Attacking Biofilms: Another Quote, Plus Some Discussion

Stephen T. Abedon

Department of Microbiology – The Ohio State University – –


This quote is from Lee Watkins and J. W. Costerton (1984). Growth and biocide resistance of bacterial biofilms in industrial systems. Chemical Times and Trends (October):35-40.

The article has nothing to do with viruses. The quote is interesting, however, since it speaks to the question of how exactly to employ viruses in the biocontrol of microorganisms, specifically in the biocontrol and indeed elimination of biofilms from surfaces (quotation marks in the original):

lt is important to be able to answer that old question “Shall we slug with a biocide, shall we continuously treat with a biocide or shall we soak with a biocide—what is the best deal for the situation?”

To me these three alternatives are distinguishable in terms of how we might think about treatment of bacteria or biofilms with phages, that is, phage-mediated biocontrol of bacteria, or phage therapy.

The first alternative I interpret as the application of large amounts of biocide over short periods, perhaps in a single dose, i.e., slugging, or what we might describe as passive treatment in the case of phage therapy. Keep in mind that passive treatment should mean that for every bacterium targeted not only should at least 10 phages be added but at least 10 phages should be adsorbing, per adsorbable bacterium.

Continuous application, to me, would imply the application of lower but still minimally effective concentrations of biocide over longer periods. Continuous application represents an extreme of multiple dosing, i.e., where the time gap between applications is reduced to zero. Key here is that something other than overwhelming amounts of biocide is being applied, what many (unfortunately) would describe as something other than high multiplicities of infection (MOI) in the case of phage application. One can view such continuous application a preventive, or prophylactic.

Lastly there is soaking, which could also be viewed as continuous application, though this is an application that takes place over a relatively short period, i.e., days or weeks rather than months or years. This would be equivalent to the application of phages by soaking bandages, soaking various absorbent material (one sees mention of “tampons” in various places in the phage therapy literature, though it’s important to realize that the word has a medical definition), or instead via the application of, e.g., Phage Bioderm (for example, as discussed here).

What’s missing, of course, are any assumptions that the biocide will replicate in situ, i.e., so-called active treatment, which is typically considered to be a hallmark of phage-mediated biocontrol/phage therapy. That absence, though, is not unexpected given that this is from a discussion of chemical and physical anti-biofilm biocides rather than of phages.

Still, it once again is nice to see that there really is little that is new under the sun. When dealing with bacterial infections, particularly chronic ones which are associated with biofilms, it can be important to keep in mind these ideas:

  1. We can hit them very hard (literally overkill) over short periods,
  2. We can hit them less hard (minimally adequate biocide concentrations) but over long periods, perhaps particularly towards prevention, or
  3. We can soak the infections over intermediate periods, presumably with periodic re-invigoration of dosing, using antibacterial levels which, also presumably, are somewhat in excess of what might be viewed as minimally adequate.

Any other approach, unless backed by hard data, should be considered to represent mostly wishful thinking.

Some additional reading:

Abedon, S.T. 2016. Bacteriophage exploitation of bacterial biofilms: phage preference for less mature targets?  FEMS Microbiol. Lett. 363:fnv246. [PubMed]

Abedon, S.T. 2016. Commentary: phage therapy of staphylococcal chronic osteomyelitis in experimental animal model.  Front. Microbiol. 7:1251. [PubMed]

Abedon, S.T. 2016. Phage therapy dosing: The problem(s) with multiplicity of infection (MOI).  Bacteriophage 6:e1220348. [PubMed]

Abedon, S.T. 2014. Bacteriophages as drugs: the pharmacology of phage therapy., p. 69-100. In J. Borysowski, R. Miedzybrodzki, and A. Górski (eds.), Phage Therapy: Current Research and Applications. Caister Academic Press, Norfolk, UK.

Abedon, S. 2011. Phage therapy pharmacology: calculating phage dosing.  Adv. Appl. Microbiol. 77:1-40. [PubMed]

Abedon, S.T., S.J. Kuhl, B.G. Blasdel, and E.M. Kutter. 2011. Phage treatment of human infections.  Bacteriophage 1:66-85. [PubMed]

Abedon, S.T. and C. Thomas-Abedon. 2010. Phage therapy pharmacology.  Curr. Pharm. Biotechnol. 11:28-47. [PubMed]

Bacterial Lawns as Biofilm-Like Environments: A New Old Quotation

Stephen T. Abedon

Department of Microbiology – The Ohio State University – –


Way back in 2010 we (Abedon and Thomas-Abedon) suggested that the growth of phage plaques within bacterial lawns could serve as mimics of bacteriophage interaction with bacterial biofiolms. In fact, we made a rather extensive argument with six Roman numeraled points: (i) constraint of bacterial movement, (ii) bacterial growth within lawns as microcolonies, (iii) inhibition of phage movement, (iv) plaque-like phage growth within actual biofilms, (v) possible temporary shielding of bacteria within lawn microcolonies from phage attack, and (vi) variation in bacterial physiologies again as found within microcolonies within lawns and as potentially equivalent to bacterial microcolonies within biofilms. We concluded that, “Given these similarities, phage plaques as a facile laboratory model therefore could enrich our understanding of phage-bacterial interrelations as they may occur during the phage therapy of biofilm-producing bacterial infections.”

Indeed, we noted as well that Gallet et al. (2009) described phage formation of plaques also as phage growth within a “biofilm-like environment”.

Here I provide a quote from an earlier publication which serves to further these arguments. From Gilbert and Brown (1995) [Mechanisms of the protection of bacterial biofilms from antibacterial agents, p. 118-130. In J. W. Costerton and H. Lappin-Scott (ed.), Microbial biofilms. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.], p. 119:

The most simple in vitro method of generating biofilms to study antimicrobial sensitivity is to inoculate the surface of an agar plate to produce a confluent growth. Such cultures, whilst not fully duplicating the in vivo situation, have been suggested to model the close proximity of individual cells to one another and the various gradients found in biofilms. In this respect, colonies grown on agar may bе representative of biofilms at solid-air interfaces.

Of course, one cannot claim that bacteria growing within soft agar overlays are perfect representations of naturally occurring biofilm structures. Nonetheless, as we’ve noted previously, e.g., Abedon and Yin (2009), plaque formation within them is a lot more complex than people otherwise may realize.