2015 Year of the phage conference | San Diego State University

Prognosticating the Future of Phage Research

Hacking the Interface between Humans and the Environment

By Mya Breitbart (University of South Florida)

No man is an island, we live in a microbial soup (containing both bacteria and phage) and are constantly interacting with these microbes in the natural environment, the built environment, and along artificial/natural boundaries (which will blend and disappear in the phuture). We are constantly exchanging microbes with these environments, which (like our own bodies), undergo selection.

10 years – The world has transitioned from indiscriminate killing (e.g., alcohol-based hand sanitizers and antibiotic-laden soap) to selective killing (targeting only pathogens of interest). Even this small change switches the balance in favor of the commensals, which work in tandem with our immune systems to fight off infections and "win" in the environment since the pathogens aren't optimized for survival outside of the body. Police work increasingly relies on individual's unique microbial fingerprints to identify criminals, provide evidence of infidelity, or even figure out who didn't pick up their dog's poop.

25 years –  Microbiology will be a prime consideration in all aspects of manufacturing. Sustainable development explicitly selects for good microbes (through prebiotic paints, anti-biofouling phage, phage applied to 3D printed parts to ward off pathogens). Humans (finally) realize that isolation from the environment is detrimental and our view of the built environment completely changes with designs encouraging connections between humans and the environment instead of preventing them (e.g., hospitals with windows that can't open).  Specific environments (certain plants, water, etc…) are engineered as therapy for particular health conditions and a new wave of "sphas" emerges, where doctors prescribe time in these ecosystems as preventative or remedial measures. Not only do we let kids eat dirt, but we encourage it…
50 years – Previously centralized processes, such as wastewater treatment, have become decentralized, giving people the power to control their own exposure and health.  Fluorescent reporter phage alert homeowners to microbial intruders or dangers within their now-carefully-cultivated living space. Previous hotspots of disease (e.g., airplanes, bathrooms) have actually become some of the safest environments due to new, proactive cleaning and engineering protocols. The "built" environment and surfaces/appliances/technology in our lives is engineered to be helpful – for example, cell phones that treat against acne while you're talking on them or deodorants that select for a sweet-smelling suite of microbes to colonize your armpits.

100 years – SuperPhage, bioengineered to be highly motile and resistant to degradation, will be deployed to seek and destroy bacterial pathogens. Environmentally-acquired infections are no longer an issue, since the pathogens don't stand a chance against our SuperPhage warriors, which stand a constant watch and eliminate environmental reservoirs. These SuperPhage are routinely added to all environments that humans interact with, similar to the way that fluoride has been added to drinking water.

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Forest Rohwer Laboratory
San Diego State University