UF researcher on team whose work could be vital in fighting drug-resistant bacteria

A 3D illustration of cholera bacteria, Vibrio cholerae, under high magnification.

By Bill Levesque

The battle that University of Florida Health researcher Eric Nelson, M.D., Ph.D., and his international team of collaborators are unraveling began several billion years ago when bacteria and their viral killers began a veritable genetic arms race.

This seemingly eternal struggle for supremacy continues today, with implications for diseases killing tens of thousands of people around the world each year.

“It’s a predator-prey relationship that is critically important to understand,” Nelson said.

Nelson and collaborators published a study in Science on April 18 revealing key insights into how bacteria killers called bacteriophages or phages impact the severity of the waterborne diarrheal disease cholera. Cholera kills between 21,000 and 143,000 people annually worldwide. It is a disease of poverty, striking regions lacking clean drinking water and sanitation.

The team conducted what it believes to be one of the largest genetic studies to analyze the dynamic relationship between cholera bacteria, their bacteriophages and antibiotics.

The study underscores the possibility of creating new strategies to use bacteriophages to kill drug-resistant bacteria in cholera and other diseases that have plagued civilization for centuries, said Nelson, the study’s senior author.

“What we’ve discovered will be a pathway to new diagnostics, a pathway to better think about antibiotic resistance mitigation,” said Nelson, an associate professor in the UF College of Medicine’s department of pediatrics and the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions’ department of environmental and global health. “The hope is that we will reveal a truth we’ve been blinded to for a century.”

A key finding involves a concept called “effective predation.” The researchers found a higher ratio of phage predators to their bacterial prey was associated with milder cholera cases. The team said it is the first to show the genetic underpinnings of this ratio.

“The phages are putting the evolutionary squeeze on the bacterial pathogen,” said Nelson, a member of UF Emerging Pathogens Institute.

This ratio can be used as a marker of disease severity, informing a physician’s decisions on treatment. It might also predict disease progression.

Read the full story in the UF Health newsroom