New student research from the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) could help us stem the tide of antibiotic-resistant infections — using your kitchen sponge.

Kitchen Sponge.

The savior we didn’t want, but the one we need.
Image credits Hans Braxmeier.

Research at the NYIT has zoomed in on bacteriophages — viruses that infect bacteria — living in our kitchen sponges. These biological particles, often shorthanded as ‘phages’, may prove useful in fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the team reports.

Spongy science

“Our study illustrates the value in searching any microbial environment that could harbor potentially useful phages,” said Brianna Weiss, a Life Sciences student at New York Institute of Technology.

Kitchen sponges aren’t exactly the cleanest items in your house. In fact, it’s exposed to all kinds of different microbes every day and is pretty much crawling with a microbiome of bacteria. And where there are bacteria, there are also bacteriophages, viruses that target, infect, and multiply on the back of bacteria.

Students in a research class at NYIT isolated bacteria from their own used kitchen sponges and then used them as bait to see which phages could attack them. Two of the students successfully baited phage strains that could infect these bacteria. The team then decided to ‘swap’ these two phage strains and check whether they could cross-infect the bacteria isolated by the other student — and it turned out they could. The phage strains successfully infected and then killed bacteria recovered from the other sponge.

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“This led us to wonder if the bacteria strains were coincidentally the same, even though they came from two different sponges,” said Weiss.

To get to the bottom of things, the team isolated and compared the DNA of these bacterial strains. They report that both belong to the Enterobacteriaceae family, a vast grouping of rod-shaped bacteria that are commonly found in feces. Some members of the Enterobacteriaceae family have been recorded to cause infections in hospital settings. Although related, the researchers do add that lab analysis revealed chemical variations between the two strains.

“These differences are important in understanding the range of bacteria that a phage can infect, which is also key to determining its ability to treat specific antibiotic-resistant infections,” said Weiss.

“Continuing our work, we hope to isolate and characterize more phages that can infect bacteria from a variety of microbial ecosystems, where some of these phages might be used to treat antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.”

The project fits into a larger drive to develop non-chemical avenues of fighting bacteria. Such measures are meant, on the one hand, to reduce the incidence and spread of antibiotic resistance in bacterial strains by limiting exposure to such drugs. On the other hand, they aim to give us a functioning defense against strains that have already acquired partial or (much worse) complete immunity to our antibiotics. Some of these ideas that we’ve looked at in the past include laying down antibacterialspike pits‘, shredding them with polymers and nanomaterials, using (Komodo) dragon blood, and straight-up causing some bacterial civil war.

Still, the World Health Organization is concerned that, despite drug-resistant bacteria being “one of the biggest challenges mankind has to face in the near, as well as distant future,” and despite these strains claiming hundreds of thousands of lives every year, the world is simply not prepared to deal with the threat. “Only 34 out of 133 questioned countries have even a basic plan to combat the misuse of antibiotics fuelling drug resistance,” Andrei reported at the time.

Hopefully, research such as the one we’re discussing today will mature before our antibiotics become powerless in the face of bacteria. We’re simply over-relying on antibiotics, a study published last May explained, and methods such as the use of phages could help us break the pattern before it is too late.

The findings have been presented at ASM Microbe, the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.