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Adv Virus Res. 2012;82:1-32. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-394621-8.00017-0.

Bacteriophage electron microscopy.

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  • 1Department of Microbiology, Epidemiology and Infectiology, Faculty of Medicine, Laval University, Quebec, Canada.


Since the advent of the electron microscope approximately 70 years ago, bacterial viruses and electron microscopy are inextricably linked. Electron microscopy proved that bacteriophages are particulate and viral in nature, are complex in size and shape, and have intracellular development cycles and assembly pathways. The principal contribution of electron microscopy to bacteriophage research is the technique of negative staining. Over 5500 bacterial viruses have so far been characterized by electron microscopy, making bacteriophages, at least on paper, the largest viral group in existence. Other notable contributions are cryoelectron microcopy and three-dimensional image reconstruction, particle counting, and immunoelectron microscopy. Scanning electron microscopy has had relatively little impact. Transmission electron microscopy has provided the basis for the recognition and establishment of bacteriophage families and is one of the essential criteria to classify novel viruses into families. It allows for instant diagnosis and is thus the fastest diagnostic technique in virology. The most recent major contribution of electron microscopy is the demonstration that the capsid of tailed phages is monophyletic in origin and that structural links exist between some bacteriophages and viruses of vertebrates and archaea. DNA sequencing cannot replace electron microscopy and vice versa.

Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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