Phage research at MPI-TM

Max Planck researchers from Marburg are part of the DFG priority program "New concepts of virus-host interaction in prokaryotes"

August 01, 2021

Dr. Katharina Höfer and Prof. Gert Bange from the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg are joint project partners in the new priority program (SPP) of the German Research Foundation (DFG). The aim of the program is to investigate the relationships between viruses (phages) and their bacterial hosts both at the single cell level and in the context of microbial communities using state-of-the-art methods.

As ubiquitous as bacteria are the viruses that infect them. The discovery of bacteriophages about 100 years ago was the key to understanding genetic information - until phage research was overshadowed by other discoveries.Today, phage research is more relevant than ever. It offers exciting new opportunities, whether as a therapy against bacterial diseases, or as a or as a control element in global substance cycles. This presumably high potential is counterbalanced by an enormous need for information on the exact molecular processes; however, today's molecular technologies offer completely new insights into the molecular processes of phage-bacteria interactions and provide partly revolutionary new findings that can also be applied to other cellular issues and further organisms.

Katharina Höfer's research focuses on ADP-ribosylation, a central enzymatic process in infection. Her approach is particularly exciting because the researcher recently came across a completely new form of cellular macromolecule that challenges our previous understanding of the architecture of molecular structures.

By characterizing the bacterial epitranscriptome - the modifications of genetic building blocks - the research team hopes to gain fundamental insights into phage biology. In doing so, they aim to create solid grounds for future medical applications. "Many researchers see the potential, but there are still few that are trying to understand the phage in detail," says Katharina Höfer. "If you know the blueprints as well as the principles of the modular system, you can create a highly specific phage in the test tube in the future. The special thing about this is that it acts faster and more targeted than any previous antibiotic."

While Katharina Höfer's group is investigating the interaction of phages and Gram-negative bacteria such as E.coli, her cooperation partner Gert Bange has focused his research on Gram-positive bacteria like Bacillus subtilis.  He and his team want to know how the stress response of bacteria - especially to food deprivation - is affected by interaction with phages. "A phage demands a tremendous amount of extra energy from the host cell. How does the phage trick the bacterium's metabolic management? And how does the host cell's starvation response in turn influence the phage's molecular behavior? These are mechanisms that we would like to understand in principle," says Gert Bange.  "There are extremely exciting mechanisms to discover beyond the classic model phages such as T4 or T7 - which is another reason why phage research is experiencing a renaissance. In addition, there is a new methodology to explore them," explains the Max Planck Fellow.

The DFG Priority Program "New Concepts in Prokaryotic Virus-host Interactions - From Single Cells to Microbial Communities" (SPP 2330) is to run for a total of six years. The goal of this priority program is to open new horizons and opportunities for the discovery of fundamentally new concepts and mechanisms in biology by focusing on three levels of complexity of viral organization: viral cell biology, novel single- and multicellular antiviral defense mechanisms, and viral effects on microbial communities. The total of 14 new collaborations will receive a total of approximately 85 million euros for an initial three years.

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