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Evolutionary Arms Race Between Bacteria and Their Viruses in Soil

Viruses of soil bacteria (phages) evolve to improve their ability to infect the bacterial hosts that surround them. This is shown in a new study by Dutch researcher Michiel Vos, published in the journal Science. Phages appear to be better able to infect bacteria from the same small soil sample than bacteria from just a few centimetres away. Evolution can therefore restructure ecosystems on a very small scale.

Working at the University of Oxford, Michiel Vos took 5 lots of 5 samples from an area of soil measuring 25cm by 25cm. From each sample, he isolated Stenotrophomas bacteria and their associated phages. Phages infect bacteria, proliferate, burst out of the cell and then go on to infect new bacteria. More than a third of the bacteria were found to be sensitive to infection by phages from the same area of soil. Phages can therefore markedly control populations of soil bacteria.

Vos went on to investigate whether the phages were better at infecting their surrounding bacteria than bacteria from a few centimetres (further) away. This turned out to be the case: phages were better at infecting bacteria from the same soil sample than those from other soil samples. In the language of evolutionary ecologists, the phages are 'locally adapted'. Whether the bacteria in turn adapted to the phages (co-evolution) was not investigated in the experiment, but this is quite likely.

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