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Fighting Viruses to Protect Bacteria
June 29, 2012   
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A company set up by a Gdańsk researcher uses proprietary know-how to help industrial plants that use friendly bacteria in their production processes. The researcher and his team are ready to spring into action if a factory is suddenly invaded by bacteriophages—viruses that devour bacteria.

The company is called Phage Consultants and is the first and so far only business of its kind in the world, according to its owner, Marcin Łoś, Ph.D., who concurrently works at the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of Gdansk in northern Poland.

Thousands of industrial plants across the world exploit bacteria as a cheap “labor force.” In the course of production processes which rely on bacteria, huge bioreactors containing thousands of liters of raw material may be infected by bacteriophages—viruses known as bacteria killers.

Bacteriophage contamination is a major risk in the dairy and distilling industries, including in the production of yogurt and vinegar, and in chemical plants producing solvents and washing powders containing enzymes.

Danish company Danisco, whose bacterial cultures are used by almost half of all ice-cream and cheese producers in the world, has had its in-house molecular biology lab for more than a decade. Led by Philippe Horvath, the laboratory has developed ways to strengthen the defensive mechanisms of bacteria, making them immune to bacteriophage infections. Other large companies have similar labs, but most producers who use bacteria in their processes do not employ bacteriophage specialists.

If a company’s staff is unable to minimize the disastrous consequences of viral infections on their own, Łoś moves in to deal with the problem. He is an expert in this narrow field, which is a research topic for only a handful of scientists in the world.

Viruses usually infect bacterial cultures from the air but there are also other sources of contamination such as the culture medium and equipment used in the production process and staff, Łoś says. The consequences are always dramatic. The contamination of a single bioreactor may paralyze the operation of an entire plant, leading to huge financial losses. Some production plants had to be closed down altogether because of persistent bacteriophage infections.

“We already know what to do to prevent bacteriophages from infecting bacteria and, even if there is infection, to prevent them from initiating harmful activity, or to make an infected bacterium kill itself immediately,” Łoś says. “We know how to control this, although we are still unable to fully predict all the development strategies of bacteriophages and grow bacteria immune to them, for instance.”

Bacteriophages have few weak points and researchers are still unable to grow totally immune bacteria. To make things worse, bacteriophages grow much faster than bacteria and can produce more than 100 descendant viruses in an hour. Meanwhile, bacteria need four hours to restore what bacteriophages have destroyed within an hour.

Łoś’s first “victim” was the T1-like virus which ravaged bioreactors at the University of Halle in Germany. As a young Ph.D. student from the University of Gdańsk, Łoś came to Halle to conduct experiments he needed for his thesis. In Halle, he found out that his German colleagues had a problem they were unable to solve.

“I managed to quickly identify and solve the problem,” Łoś says. He thus contributed to a joint publication by Prof. Grzegorz Węgrzyn of the Gdańsk University of Technology and Prof. Peter Neubauer of Germany on fighting viruses in production processes.

Łoś continued to investigate the secrets of bacteriophages and eventually used the findings of his research commercially. He took advantage of an opportunity created by Micro-Chance for Micro-Businesses, a program run by the Economic Foundation in the Polish coastal city of Gdynia to support innovative start-ups.

Phage Consultants began operating five years ago. The company’s main asset is the expertise of its shareholders: Łoś and his wife Joanna. They offer services in a highly specialized and narrow field. The main problem is that they have a limited number of potential customers; the best thing about the business, on the other hand, is that there is no competition. They do not employ staff on a permanent basis; they only hire workers to carry out specific tasks.

Phage Consultants provide services to customers in both Poland and abroad. They have worked in countries including Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, the United States, India and Canada. They also attend industry meetings abroad, including the BioProcess International Conference in Long Beach, California, and the Annual Bio Innovation Leaders Summit in London. Łoś is also a regular participant in the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing, which is held alternately in the United States and Canada—this year in Orlando, Florida.

Adam Grzybowski
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