Bacteria Set Off Viral “Bombs” Inside Neighbors

A study finds some E. coli can deploy a chemical called colibactin to reawaken long-dormant viruses inside bacteria, causing destruction.
Natalia Mesa

Mar 7, 2022

Certain E. coli strains can engage in a form of bacterial warfare by producing colibactin, a chemical that can awaken long-dormant viruses inside neighboring cells’ DNA, sometimes resulting in their destruction, according to a new study published February 23 in Nature

“It’s an interesting strategy, and it’s also a dangerous strategy,” Heather Hendrickson, an evolutionary microbiologist at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, who was not involved in the work, tells Science News

Throughout a bacterium’s life, bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria—insert their DNA into its genome. Typically, these embedded viruses, known as prophages, are harmless and lie dormant unless something triggers their escape. The study reports that E. coli can release colibactin, which damages neighbors’ DNA, triggering the bacteria’s DNA repair system, known as an SOS response. This releases prophage DNA from the bacteria’s genome, causing the virus to regain its virulence. Once these viruses are released from the bacterial genomes, they replicate and burst out of the host microbe, destroying it. They can also begin to infect other, neighboring bacteria—including the bacteria that released the colibactin. (See link for article)



This article leaves us with more questions than answers.

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