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Evol Bioinform Online. 2007 Feb 28;1:97-110.

Why bacteriophage encode exotoxins and other virulence factors.

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Department of Microbiology, Ohio State University, Mansfield, Ohio, USA.


This study considers gene location within bacteria as a function of genetic element mobility. Our emphasis is on prophage encoding of bacterial virulence factors (VFs). At least four mechanisms potentially contribute to phage encoding of bacterial VFs: (i) Enhanced gene mobility could result in greater VF gene representation within bacterial populations. We question, though, why certain genes but not others might benefit from this mobility. (ii) Epistatic interactions-between VF genes and phage genes that enhance VF utility to bacteria-could maintain phage genes via selection acting on individual, VF-expressing bacteria. However, is this mechanism sufficient to maintain the rest of phage genomes or, without gene co-regulation, even genetic linkage between phage and VF genes? (iii) Phage could amplify VFs during disease progression by carrying them to otherwise commensal bacteria colocated within the same environment. However, lytic phage kill bacteria, thus requiring assumptions of inclusive fitness within bacterial populations to explain retention of phage-mediated VF amplification for the sake of bacterial utility. Finally, (iv) phage-encoded VFs could enhance phage Darwinian fitness, particularly by acting as ecosystem-modifying agents. That is, VF-supplied nutrients could enhance phage growth by increasing the density or by improving the physiology of phage-susceptible bacteria. Alternatively, VF-mediated break down of diffusion-inhibiting spatial structure found within the multicellular bodies of host organisms could augment phage dissemination to new bacteria or to environments. Such phage-fitness enhancing mechanisms could apply particularly given VF expression within microbiologically heterogeneous environments, ie, ones where phage have some reasonable potential to acquire phage-susceptible bacteria.


Bacteriophage; Exotoxins; Phage; Virulence Factors


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