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Bacteriophages could aid disinfection of drug-resistant bacteria in wastewater


The spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a major threat to public health. These bacteria can reach the environment when wastewater leaves treatment plants, because they often survive conventional treatment processes. A new study shows that these pathogenic bacteria can be killed cheaply and quickly by a combined treatment with sunlight and bacteria-killing viruses called bacteriophages:

Al-Jassim N, Mantilla-Calderon D, Scarascia G, and Hong P-Y. Bacteriophages To Sensitize a Pathogenic New Delhi Metallo β-Lactamase-Positive Escherichia coli to Solar Disinfection // Environ. Sci. Technol., 2018, 52 (24): 14331-14341. DOI: 10.1021 / acs.est.8b04501


Bacteriophages active against a New Delhi metallo beta-lactamase (NDM)-positive E. coli PI-7 were isolated from municipal wastewater and tested for their lytic effect against the bacterial host. Bacteriophages were highly specific to E. coli PI-7 when tested for host-range. After determining host-specificity, bacteriophages were tested for their ability to sensitize E. coli PI-7 to solar irradiation.

Solar irradiation coupled with bacteriophages successfully reduced the length of the lag-phase for E. coli PI-7 from 4 h to 2 h in buffer solution. The reduction of lag-phase length was also observed in filtered wastewater effluent and chlorinated effluent.

Previously, we found through gene expression analysis that cell wall, oxidative stress, and DNA repair functions played a large role in protecting E. coli PI-7 against solar damage. Here, gene expression analysis of bacteriophage-supplemented solar-irradiated E. coli PI-7 revealed downregulation of cell wall functions. Downregulation of functions implicated in scavenging and detoxifying reactive oxygen species, as well as DNA repair genes, was also observed in bacteriophage-supplemented solar-irradiated E. coli PI-7.

Moreover, solar irradiation activates recA, which can induce lytic activity of bacteriophages. Overall, the combined treatment led to gene responses that appeared to make E. coli PI-7 more susceptible to solar disinfection and bacteriophage infection. Our findings suggest that bacteriophages show good potential to be used as a biocontrol tool to complement solar irradiation in mitigating the persistence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in reuse waters.