Durham University: Students take key role in ground-breaking bacterial research

Our Department of Biosciences is ranked sixth in the UK in the Guardian University Guide 2022 and offers inspiring opportunities for students to tackle real-world challenges.

Finding the viruses
As a part of a microbiology workshop, our students were tasked with isolating new bacteriophages for the research.

Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria. There are an estimated ten bacteriophages for every single bacterium on the planet.

Nearly 100 of our undergraduates, who were in the final years of their BSc or MBiol degrees, collected bacteriophages from the River Wear, College ponds and other waterways around Durham for the study.

This research-led teaching aims to blend important practical skills with academic knowledge, which makes our student learning experience directly relevant to current scientific endeavours!

Testing bacterial immunity
Bacteriophages collected by our students were tested against E. coli bacteria to check the strength of the E. coli defence systems in providing protection against the viruses.

The researchers found that the two defence systems worked side by side in a complementary manner to protect the bacteria.

The first defence system protected the bacteria from bacteriophages that had no DNA changes.

In order to avoid this first defence system, some bacteriophages chemically change their DNA for a second attack.

The second defence system, called BrxU, protected the bacteria from the second attack, showcasing a stronger defence against bacteriophages with changed DNA.

Researchers believe that BrxU has strong potential as a useful biotechnological tool, because the DNA changes in bacteriophages that BrxU recognises can also be found in human DNA.

BrxU could therefore be used to map these changes in human DNA, as they alter according to age, or during diseases such as cancer.