E. coli, CRISPR, Biases in Our Understanding of Phage Ecology, and Possible Implications for Phage Therapy

Stephen T. Abedon

Department of Microbiology – The Ohio State University

phage.org – phage-therapy.org – biologyaspoetry.org


We’re all biased by what we know best and the link below discusses why, historically as well as microbiologically, we all “grew up” with the notion that envelope mutations are the primary means by which phage resistance evolves in bacteria. So thank you E. coli (I state with sarcasm):


What, I ask, are the implications for phage therapy of resistance mechanisms to specific phages that are essentially cost free and, at least arguably, Lamarckian as well, i.e., as due to CRISPR? For well-trained phage-therapy teams, I suspect not much. This is because, whether employing cocktails or monophages, the intention generally will be to hit bacterial targets hard and with whatever it takes to clear the infection, such as to switching phages during monophage therapy if resistance is noted.

But for monophages in the hands of less well-trained individuals, e.g., over-the-counter phage formulations or in the hands of poorly trained or regulated clinicians, the potential for development and then transmission of fully fit pathogens that nonetheless are fully resistant to a specific monophage could be fairly high. Importantly, and as relevant to the cited E. coi-CRISPR story, this issue may be more relevant for some pathogens, i.e., those with intact CRISPR systems, than it is for others.

So perhaps we can add inhibition of the potential for therapy-induced evolution of phage resistance among pathogens – as could then be transmitted across affected human communities – as an additional advantage of  prêt-à-porter (phage cocktails) versus sur-mesure (monophage therapy), while still retaining an argument for sur-mesure particularly among highly experienced phage therapists.

As we note in Chan and Abedon (2012), I nevertheless don’t buy arguments that spontaneously occurring phage host range mutations can be counted on in situ to counter bacterial evolution to phage resistance whether in the context of phage cocktails or instead monotherapy. From p. 19 of that publication:

A further consideration is that just as cocktails of phages may be thwarted in their ability to target low densities of phage-resistant bacteria, particularly given active treatment, these concerns should be even greater if one is relying on in situ phage evolution to supply resistance-countering phages… The reason for this is that the necessary host-range mutant phage types will be present in even lower densities than the phages explicitly found in cocktails. These same concerns may also be seen even in the absence of spatial structure so long as those phages within a cocktail that are amplified in situ, that is, in the course of active treatment, are not the same phages to which bacterial phage-resistant mutants are sensitive… Active therapy even with phage cocktails thus may be inherently incompatible with early interference with the evolution of bacterial resistance to phages.


Phage cocktails nevertheless should be better suited than monophages for dealing with evolving bacterial resistance to phages simply because cocktails inherently possess greater total numbers of phage particles that display divergent host ranges. On the other hand, the generation of cocktails of phages that display divergent host ranges – but where those phages nevertheless have been derived from a common genetic “platform” – might be expected to perform little better than monophages in the face of CRISPR-mediated phage resistance in target bacteria.

Further (Phage Therapy) Reading:

Chan, B. K., S. T. Abedon, and C. Loc-Carrillo. 2013. Phage cocktails and the future of phage therapy. Future.Microbiol. 8:769-783. [PubMed]

Chan, B. K. and S. T. Abedon. 2012. Phage therapy pharmacology: phage cocktails. Adv.Appl.Microbiol.  78:1-23. [PubMed]

Pirnay, J. P., V. D. De, G. Verbeken, M. Merabishvili, N. Chanishvili, M. Vaneechoutte, M. Zizi, G. Laire, R. Lavigne, I. Huys, G. Van den Mooter, A. Buckling, L. Debarbieux, F. Pouillot, J. Azeredo, E. Kutter, A. Dublanchet, A. Gorski, and R. Adamia. 2011. The phage therapy paradigm: prêt-à-porter or sur-mesure? Pharm.Res 28:934-937. [PubMed]


Bacteriophage-based synthetic biology for the study of infectious diseases

An interesting new short paper out of Tim Lu’s synthetic biology lab showcasing what bacteriophage can bring to the table,

Bacteriophage-based synthetic biology for the study of infectious diseases

Robert J Citorik, Mark Mimee, and Timothy K Lu Published 2014 in Curr. Opin Microbiol. DOI: 10.1016/j.mib.2014.05.022

Since their discovery, bacteriophages have contributed enormously to our understanding of molecular biology as model systems. Furthermore, bacteriophages have provided many tools that have advanced the fields of genetic engineering and synthetic biology. Here, we discuss bacteriophage-based technologies and their application to the study of infectious diseases. New strategies for engineering genomes have the potential to accelerate the design of novel phages as therapies, diagnostics, and tools. Though almost a century has elapsed since their discovery, bacteriophages continue to have a major impact on modern biological sciences, especially with the growth of multidrug-resistant bacteria and interest in the microbiome.

•Multidrug-resistant infections have sparked a renewed interest in bacteriophages.
•Synthetic biology has enabled technologies for next-generation phage engineering.
•Engineered phages and derived parts constitute a new antimicrobial paradigm.
•Bacteriophage-based reporters permit detection of specific pathogens.
•Components from phage form a core set of parts in the synthetic biology toolbox.

Bacteriophage - Synthetic Biology