Our intestines are said to be home to as many as 140,000 different species of viruses, half of which were previously unknown. This may sound a little scary, but there is absolutely no reason to panic, on the contrary! This discovery indeed opens the way to innovative medical research, in particular on alternatives to antibiotics.
This study is the result of collaboration between a British (British Wellcome Sanger Institute) and a European (European Bioinformatics Institute) team. Scientists analyzed the feces of more than 28,000 people around the world for the DNA of bacteriophages, also known as “phages”. These are viruses that can infect and kill bacteria. The researchers were surprised not only by the high number of viruses found but also by their great diversity. And more than half of the phages identified here had not yet been described.
In healthy intestines
The word virus is frightening, especially in these times of Covid. But bacteriophage viruses are not pathogens. Not all viruses are harmful and bacteriophages are even a crucial part of the ecosystem in our intestines. The fecal samples used in this research came mainly from healthy individuals, which shows that these viruses evolve in healthy intestines.
A new database
The specialists gathered their knowledge in a database (Gut Phage Database – GPD), an important tool for research on the evolution and the role of bacteriophages in the intestines. This amount of information will help researchers in their studies of how phages help maintain a healthy intestinal balance. We know that an imbalance of bacteria in the intestine can contribute to health disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease, allergies and obesity.
A possible alternative to antibiotics
These new data could speed up research on bacteriophages as alternatives to antibiotics, to which more and more bacteria are becoming resistant. A big advantage of phages is that they only attack harmful bacteria, while antibiotics also kill a more or less important part of the “good” bacteria in the gut, which can cause an imbalance in the intestines, and in particular cause damage including diarrhea or other intestinal disorders. But at this point, antibiotics are still the first choice.