• Question: Is it possible to create a type of bacteria or virus to have a positive effect on the host, like an immunity against pathogens?

    Asked by george13151 on 29 Apr 2020.
    • Photo: Delma Childers

      Delma Childers answered on 29 Apr 2020:


      There are a few companies and research groups working on this! In theory, this idea is definitely possible. In practice, we have a few microbiome studies that tell us that certain types of bacteria and microbes can have a beneficial effect and help us fight certain infections. For example, some severe gastrointestinal infections are caused by a highly drug resistant bacterium called Clostridium difficile. In the last ten or so years, when antibiotic therapy has failed in these infections, clinicians have used microbiome transplants with pretty decent success. Certain other gut bacteria can out-compete Clostridium difficile and help resolve the infection.

    • Photo: Kim Liu

      Kim Liu answered on 29 Apr 2020: last edited 29 Apr 2020 3:20 pm


      This a great question, and indeed as Delma says there are number of groups researching this topic. The great thing about bacteria and viruses is that it is incredibly easy to genetically engineer them to produce proteins and biological substances that might be useful to the human body. It is entirely possible that they can indeed provide immunity against pathogens by producing antimicrobial substances or stimulating our own immune systems.
      The only problem with these solution is that it is very, very difficult to be certain that these bacteria won’t mutate into something dangerous. It would be a disaster if we infected ourselves with bacteria which one day became a pathogen! It’s a similar argument with gene therapy – it’s hard to know exactly what the overall effect of these bacteria or viruses would be.

    • Photo: Wei Xun

      Wei Xun answered on 29 Apr 2020:


      Hey did you see the question on bacteriophages? They are natural predator of bacteria, and they can be engineered to target and destroy specific bacterial strains which do not respond to antibiotics.

      Are you doing research on bacteriophages because i am wondering if they can be used as a cure the common cold.

    • Photo: Keith Boyle

      Keith Boyle answered on 30 Apr 2020:


      I would like to expand on what others have said, in particular Delma. Shortly after birth the digestive system of babies takes on the bacteria that its mother has. These bacteria go onto live inside our intestines for the rest of our lives – in fact, all together they make up around 0.5-1.0kg in weight! They are called commensal bacteria. These bacteria are not harmful and actually have positive effects on people (all animals have some bacteria living on or inside them without causing any harm). They help with digestion of food and help prevent invading pathogens from infecting us. This is being researched by many people and it is thought that the commensal bacteria actually ‘prime’ or prepare our immune systems to respond against pathogens. As Delma says, sometimes doctors have taken one persons commensal bacteria and transfer them to another person with an infection, which sometimes has helped clear that infection. This is an very exciting area of research!

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