Anthrax bacteria conspire with viruses to stay alive

August 12, 2009
Viral protection. Unlike noninfected spores (left), those infected with bacteriophages (right) produce an extra protective layer and change their shape in the face of harsh environmental conditions.

( -- The brute force of Bacillus anthracis, the ancient scourge that causes anthrax, can sweep through and overpower a two-ton animal in under 72 hours. But when it isn't busy claiming livestock and humans throughout the world -- up to 100,000 annually -- it resides ominously in the soil as a spore waiting for its next victim. Researchers at Rockefeller University now reveal that this deadly bacterium isn't the only master of its fate. Its survival is directed and shaped by the DNA of bacteria-infecting viruses in what appears to be an evolutionary contract written to benefit both parties.

The research, led by Vincent A. Fischetti, head of the Laboratory of Bacterial Pathogenesis and Immunology, and Raymond Schuch, a research assistant professor in the lab, revamps the way scientists think about how pathogens exist in the environment in between outbreaks, focusing on the role viruses play during this dormant stage in the life cycle. The implications reach far and wide, from the sequencing of genomes to the recurrent and cyclical nature of disease.

"B. anthracis leads a much more complicated life than we had ever known," says Schuch, whose work will appear in the August issue of . "Small, infecting viruses dramatically alter the survival capabilities of B. anthracis. It is more or less a symbiotic relationship in which the interests of both the bacterium and virus are kept in balance."

The secret life of anthrax-causing bacteria emerged from a seemingly innocuous observation made by Louis Pasteur more than 100 years ago. The famous bacteriologist found that earthworms were associated with anthrax-infected animal carcasses in the ground and hypothesized that the could play an important role in the life cycle of the deadly pest. For the first time, Shuch and Fischetti have now confirmed Pasteur's early hunch. They found that in the gut of the earthworm, B. anthracis infected with a type of virus, known as a bacteriophage, live longer than virus-free bacteria. The gut of the earthworm, they surmised, provides the infected bacteria with a safe niche in which to exist.

The researchers further show that in both the gut of the earthworm and the stark confines of a Petri dish, viruses can alter the lifestyle of B. anthracis in two principal ways. One is associated with the ability to build communities, the state in which bacteria prefer to live in the environment; the other affects the bacterium's ability to produce spores: round, dormant cells with a thick cell wall that enables them to endure harsh environmental conditions that the rod-shaped bacteria cannot. What's more, they found that depending on the conditions of the environment, the virus's manipulates the bacterium's to toggle between spore production and community building.

The relationship appears to result from some sort of evolutionary contract that keeps the interests of bacterium and virus in balance. Since viruses cannot infect and grow in spores, they have an interest in silencing genes that ramp up spore production and in activating genes that help build B. anthracis communities. But when soil conditions threaten the survival of anthrax-causing bacteria, spawning a tougher line of defense to weather the soil's extreme conditions benefits both parties. The unveiling of the bacterium's life cycle opens up completely new strategies to combat anthrax infection, says Fischetti.

This isn't the first time that Fischetti and Schuch have seen that bacteriophages can affect the survival of B. anthracis. In 2006 they showed that infected anthrax-causing bacteria become more resistant to a natural antibiotic found in the soil. The new studies now go further, showing how these survival capabilities are not just affected by bacteriophages but actually depend on them.

Bacteriophages, the researchers found, exert their control via molecules known as sigma factors, which delegate proteins to turn specific host genes on or off. Different viruses encode different sigma factors, so the appearance of different traits depends on which virus infects the bacterium. While the DNA of some bacteriophages gets incorporated into the bacterium's single chromosome, the DNA of others exists as separate circular entities called episomes. These episomes can either stay inside one bacterium or flit in and out, infecting several bacteria in a matter of hours.

The finding has implications for the sequencing of genomes. "What that means is that sequencing the genome may not be enough," says Fischetti. "There are more than 1,000 known isolates of anthrax and there is little genetic variation between one isolate and the next. So at face value, it is a really boring genome. But what we see here is that the phage DNA, which works together with the anthrax genome, has always been overlooked."

If bacteriophages can govern the fate of bacteria and bacteria affect human health, the transformation of these bacteria may be able to explain the recurrent and cyclical nature of certain diseases. Humans have 10 times more bacteria on them or in them than the number of human cells, explains Fischetti. And there are 10 times more bacteriophages than there are . "Bacteriophages play a major role in us and what goes on around us in nature," he says. "I am convinced of that."

More information: PLoS One 4(8): e6532 (August 12, 2009); The secret life of the anthrax agent Bacillus anthracis: Bacteriophage-mediated ecological adaptations; Raymond Schuch and Vincent A. Fischetti

Source: Rockefeller University (news : web)

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not rated yet Aug 12, 2009
I strongly object to the author's use of terms such as 'symbiosis/symbiotic' in describing the relationship between the bacterium and the chemical compound known as a virus. It implies that viruses are living things: they most cerytainly are NOT! They are complex chemical structures that lack all qualities accepted as necessary for a life-form: they are incapable of reproduction (bacteria can copy them, yes), they do NOT metabolize, they are not motile, the do not respire, the dont do anything but to serve as message packets for inter-organism communications, if you will. Here is what says:

"The term was first used in 1879 by the German mycologist Heinrich Anton de Bary, who defined it as "the living together of unlike organisms."

Such sloppy use of language by a large percentage of 'scientists' misleads lay people towards a near-religious view of the science of evolution.

Please refrain! Not to do so would suggest one has little real understanding of his/her field.

1 / 5 (1) Aug 12, 2009
So what terms should they use?
not rated yet Aug 13, 2009
@tkjtkj: A very interesting observation nonetheless. =)
not rated yet Aug 13, 2009
So what terms should they use?

well, its not so hard to say the same things but not to include such inaccurate and misleading terms as "symbiosis" . Eg, "..bacteria infected by certain viruses do " is accurate and does not violate any fundementally-sound and accepted concept. Why would someone even feel a need to impart viruses with qualities of real living organisms unless the author harbors a very mistaken view of biology!

An 'organism' is a living thing. Viruses are not organisms.

5 / 5 (1) Aug 14, 2009
don't get your panties in a bunch over the definition of virus. it's difficult to define what they are, and for the purposes of the article, not that important. (like is light waves or particles?)Yes viruses are less than a complete life form, but far more than just an organic molecule, having complete structures and functions. And though much simpler than the more complex 'true' life, its not useless to sometimes refer to them in similar terms. 'Symbiosis' between viruses and bacteria can simply mean it helps for both of them to exist (exist instead of survive, if you must). Of the misuses of terms that we see in such articles, this is the least offensive,and could even be argued not a misuse. And the important concepts in the article aren't dimished by the language, except that our talk is now focused on that. Perhaps we do so because we are understandably unable to comment about the meat of the article and are left to discuss something almost completely unimportant. Had there been greater 'sloppiness' I would have agreed. In this case, I dont. As for people associating science with religion, I blame our collective lack of emphasis on education. Its what causes that, (and what causes 'sloppy' writing.
not rated yet Aug 19, 2009
As the author of that comment I can tell you that I do understand the definition of symbiosis (not that difficult to grasp). While perhaps not technically correct, it is not far off from the truth and it certainly does illustrate a point, especially if you are under instructions from an interviewer to make things as a clear as possible for a non-scientist audience!

That said, there are many bacteria (which you would call living things)that are incabable of reproduction by themselves (obligate intracellular bacteria for example, like certain chlamydial or mycobacterial species, require host-derived metabolic and repiration functions, and are not motile (anthracis isnt). Oh, and they dont only serve as message packets for inter-organism communications...actually they usually serve to kill bacteria, turning over roughly half the bacterial population daily. Just the way it perhaps a term derived in 1879 should be modified a bit to reflect a change in our level of knowledge.

Anyway, its fun to talk about this stuff!

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