Harnessing the Power of Bacteriophages
Phages, the viruses that infect bacteria, are the most abundant life forms on Earth. But as scientists have recently discovered, bacteria have evolved sophisticated defence systems (called CRISPR-Cas) to protect themselves against phage infection. These adaptive immune systems hold great potential for improving human health.
Dr. Alan Davidson was the first to discover the phage-encoded genes that inhibit CRISPR-Cas systems. As Canada Research Chair in Bacteriophage-Based Technologies, he is now trying to understand the mechanics of how phages function, how they affect their hosts and how bacteria resist them.
Davidson and his research team are combining molecular biology, genetics, biochemistry and physiology to improve the use of CRISPR-Cas systems in genome editing—the process of making specific changes to the DNA of a cell or organism. Because these systems have the ability to recognize and cleave any DNA sequence, they are already widely used in genomics. But the detailed findings that Davidson’s research bring to light could expand their use by making them a safer and more precise treatment for genetic diseases.
Davidson and his team are also studying phage tails, the structures that allow phages to recognize, bind and infect bacterial hosts. Their goal is to use their findings to design bactericidal agents that can precisely target and change any of the trillions of bacteria that make up the human microbiome.
Ultimately, Davidson’s work could lead to alternative treatments for antibiotic-resistant bacteria—a medical advance that would improve the health of millions of people worldwide.