Posts Tagged ‘phages’

Happy centenary, phages!

17 February, 2015

Here am I, writing a not-so-brief history of the the discovery of viruses, and I miss The Centenary of the Phage!  How did THAT happen?!

Seriously: it took an email from Virologica Sinica alerting me to their commemorative issue, to jolt me into a better state of historical awareness.


I wrote elsewhere:

Eaters of Bacteria: The Phages

Two independent investigations led to the important discovery of viruses that infect bacteria: in 1915, Frederick Twort in the UK accidentally found a filterable agent that caused the bacteria he was growing to lyse, or burst open.  While he was not sure whether or not it was a virus, Félix d’Hérelle in Paris published in 1917 that he had discovered a virus that lysed a bacterial agent he was culturing that causeddysentery, or diarrhoea.  He named the virus “bacteriophage”, or eater of bacteria, derived from the Greek term “phagein”, meaning to eat.

The discovery of bacteriophages was a landmark in the history of virology, as it meant that for the first time it was relatively easy to work with viruses: many kinds of bacteria could be grown in solid or liquid culture quite easily, and the life cycle of the viruses could be studied in detail.”

"Twort" by Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 7, No. 20. (Nov., 1951), pp. 504-517.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Twort” by Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 7, No. 20. (Nov., 1951), pp. 504-517.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

And so it has come to be: the study of phages helped to establish virology as a science, in the era before tissue culture and accurate assay of animal viruses; the birth of molecular biology was pretty much due to the famous Phage Group – and phages turn out to be possibly the most abundant form of life in the known galaxy.

Moreover, the wheel of phage therapy espoused by Félix d’Hérelle has turned full circle, with formerly-scorned Soviet-era institutes now suddenly courted by biotech companies: the Virologica Sinica issue has a an editorial review on the subject, and there is another review on the history of the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia, complete with a picture of d’Hérelle there in the 1930s.

So, congratulations Frederick Twort, on the centenary of your discovery.  Your “ultramicroscopic viruses” have gone from strength to strength; your name is remembered – albeit shamefully late – and we really should think of how to put phages more into the public eye.

Figuratively and literally, possibly B-)



PS: I discover to my delight that there is an entire site devoted to The Year of Phage, which has some amazing art as well as an entire book available for download.  Get yours NOW!