50 years ago, scientists were unlocking the secrets of bacteria-infecting viruses

Excerpt from the April 5, 1969 issue of Science News

virus replication

VALUED TOOL  By tweaking the genetic instructions of the bacteriophage M13, scientists can coax the virus to produce human antibodies to treat disease, materials to make biological batteries and more.


Science News cover from April 5, 1969Unusual virus is valuable tool

Viruses, which cannot reproduce on their own, infect cells and usurp their genetic machinery for use in making new viruses…. But just how viruses use the cell machinery is unknown.… Some answers may come from work with an unusual virus, called M13, that has a particularly compatible relationship with … [E. coli] bacteria. — Science News, April 5, 1969


M13 did help unlock secrets of viral replication. Some bacteria-infecting viruses, called bacteriophages or simply phages, kill the host cell after hijacking the cell’s machinery to make copies of themselves. Other phages, including M13, leave the cell intact. Scientists are using phage replication to develop drugs and technologies, such as virus-powered batteries (SN: 4/25/09, p. 12). Adding genetic instructions to phage DNA for making certain molecules lets some phages produce antibodies against diseases such as lupus and cancer. The technique, called phage display, garnered an American-British duo the 2018 Nobel Prize in chemistry (SN: 10/27/18, p. 16).

Cassie Martin is a deputy managing editor. She has a bachelor's degree in molecular genetics from Michigan State University and a master's degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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