Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham used cryo-electron microscopy to reveal the structure of a bacterial virus in unprecedented detail. This is the first structure of a virus capable of infecting Staphylococcus epidermidis, and high-resolution structure knowledge provides a critical link between viral biology and the virus’s potential therapeutic usage to treat bacterial diseases.

Bacteriophages, sometimes known as “phages,” are viruses that infect bacteria. Terje Dokland, Ph.D., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Asma Hatoum-Aslan, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, described atomic models for all or part of 11 distinct structural proteins in phage Andhra. The findings were published in Science Advances.

Andhra belongs to the picovirus family. It only has S. epidermidis as a host. This skin bacteria is typically harmless, although it is a leading source of indwelling medical device infections. “Picoviruses are infrequently identified in phage collections and are understudied and underutilized for therapeutic applications,” Hatoum-Aslan, a phage scientist at the University of Illinois, stated.

With the advent of antibiotic resistance in S. epidermidis and the related pathogen Staphylococcus aureus, scientists have rekindled their interest in employing bacteriophages to treat bacterial infections. Picoviruses invariably destroy the cells they infect after attaching to the bacterial cell wall, breaking through it enzymatically, piercing the cell membrane, and injecting viral DNA into the cell. They also have additional characteristics that make them appealing therapeutic possibilities, such as a tiny genome and the inability to transfer bacterial genes between bacteria.

Understanding protein structure in Andhra and how those features allow the virus to infect a bacteria would allow genetic manipulation to create custom-made phages tailored to a certain purpose.