October 13, 2019

The Secret Social Lives of Viruses

“Geneticist Rotem Sorek could see that his bacteria were sick — so far, so good. He had deliberately infected them with a virus to test whether each ailing microbe soldiered on alone or communicated with its allies to fight the attack.

But when he and his team at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, looked into the contents of their flasks, they saw something completely unexpected: the bacteria were silent, and it was the viruses that were chattering away, passing notes to each other in a molecular language only they could understand. They were deciding together when to lie low in the host cell and when to replicate and burst out, in search of new victims.

It was an accidental discovery that would fundamentally change scientists’ understanding of how viruses behave.

Viruses that infect bacteria — spiky lollipop-like creatures known as bacteriophages (or phages) — have surveillance mechanisms that bring them intel on whether to stay dormant or attack, depending on the availability of fresh victims. But researchers long thought these processes were passive; the phages seemed to just sit back and listen in, waiting for bacterial distress signals to reach fever pitch before taking action.”

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